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A trot through Sonoma County’s history with horses

Seabiscuit and jockey George Woolf lead War Admiral and jockey Charles Kurtsinger in the first turn at the race at Pimlico in Baltimore, Md., on Nov. 1, 1938. Seabiscuit won and set a new track record. (AP Photo)

GAYE LEBARON,

THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

When we talk about horses around here, we readily admit that our grass isn’t blue like Kentucky nor do our biggest “spreads” come anywhere close to the 900,000-plus acres of the King Ranch in Texas. But that doesn’t mean we can’t engage in “horse talk” with the best of them.

Sonoma County has a colorful history of agricultural, recreational and financial involvement with, as the old guys used to say, “horseflesh.”

The county isn’t speckled with private tracks on ranches as it was in the early days, when winning and losing on trotting horses was an accepted leisure activity for the pioneers.

It’s indicative that Julio Carrillo, a son of Santa Rosa’s “first family,” opened a livery stable in his new town in the 1850s — which offered him an excuse to buy and sell trotters. (Julio was also an inveterate gambler. If you know your Courthouse Square history, you know he lost most of his inherited land betting on his prize mares.) His mares had plenty of competition as the American settlers moved in.

An exhibit at the Museum of History will open next Saturday to take a look back at hoof prints on the historical landscape.

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Agriculture has diversified since Julio, and trotters aren’t the racing draw they once were. But horses of all gaits and breeds are still very much a part of the county’s “stock” trade.

There were 24,000 horses counted in Sonoma County in the 2013 horse census, up from 18,500 horses three decades earlier, according to a story by Wanda Smith in a recent issue of the Sonoma County Horse Journal.

Throw in the 36,000 equestrians, 140 trainers and 125 boarding facilities and pretty soon you’re talking about impact on the local economy.

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In the 1880s, when trotters were still the stock in trade, Sonoma County was a destination for buyers, even those from the East Coast.

Isaac DeTurk, who owned a winery along the railroad tracks (and a round barn for his horses next to it), had a stallion named Anteeo that raced around Northern California. It was so successful that DeTurk “syndicated” the horse, forming the Santa Rosa Breeders’ Association with partners Guy Grosse, Robert Crane, the Laughlin brothers, George Trowbridge and George Guerne.

You might say that was when horses became really big business here. Some of those partners’ names are still on streets and roads and towns and schools — even melons.

Anteeo, who set a record for California-bred horses in an 1885 match race in San Francisco, went on to trot on eastern tracks, and populated Sonoma County horse farms with fast colts that were considered, in the words of the day, “the nucleus of the county’s blooded herd.”

Santa Rosa remained a “horse-trading” center into the 20th century when the Pierce Brothers track at the Agricultural Park (now the county fairgrounds) became the site of the Pacific Coast Trotters’ Breeders annual meets.

That’s where the Pierce-owned fast stallion Sidney Dillon sired a filly named Lou Dillon, the first harness horse in the world to run a two-minute mile. (There is a plaque honoring Lou Dillon’s birthplace at the eastern entrance to the fairground’s main pavilion. (At least it used to be there. I haven’t looked in a couple of years.)

S.B. Wright’s Sonoma Girl carried on the tradition, threatening to break the Dillon record in three years of winning on California tracks. It never did.

Petaluma had its share of equine glory with the success of “track stars” like Kenilworth and Theodore Skillman’s imported French and Norman coach horses. Santa Rosa veterinarian J.H. “Doc” Summerfield took trophies with his coach stallion, Darnate II. (Once again, check those names on schools, parks and streets.)

In the 1880s, Adolph Weske built his round barn in the hills east of Windsor with a cupola on top from which he watched his prize trotters work on the mile and a quarter track around it.

And later, in the 1920s, John Rosseter’s weekend place, Wikiup Ranch, was home to Disguise, a thoroughbred stallion who sired racehorses that won more than $1 million for the Bay Area entrepreneur’s stables.

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The introduction of horses to California came with the Spanish vaquero, tender of the cattle introduced along the mission trail in the first decades of the 19th century.

By the time the San Francisco Solano Mission was established in 1823 many of the vaqueros were Native Americans who had mastered the skills of the Spanish and Mexican horsemen, which were, even by today’s standards, remarkable.

They served as the model for the “westerers” from “the States,” who added their own brand of horsemanship. It would result in the cowboy, the icon of the American West.

Through the years, as horses became less essential but ever more iconic to those who loved them, the weekend cowboy emerged.

There is no better example than Sonoma County’s Trailblazers. This merry band of Sonoma County’s leading citizens have ventured into the “wilderness” together for 76 summers — minus the Word War II years.

This riding group of sometime (and some full-time) North Coast horsemen was born in 1941 at the urging of rancher Warren Richardson. The first trek, with 100 riders, was a full-fledged community event, with a send-off from the Santa Rosa fairgrounds, a speech by the mayor and a live broadcast on KSRO. They rode to Middletown, where they paraded up the main street and turned toward home, riding into a warm welcome at Cloverdale, which included the high school band.

They don’t attract such attention anymore, and probably would be regarded as a traffic problem if they did. But these early treks drew more and more weekend riders until by the end of the century the membership had been capped at 375, with a waiting list.

Membership now is just about equally divided between ranchers, former rodeo riders, wranglers and other professional horsemen who have no trouble sitting tall in the saddle for five days and enthusiastic financiers, politicians, salesmen, doctors, lawyers, priests and captains of industry.

As the club has grown and matured it has divided into camps for shorter one-day rides on ranches around the North Coast through the year.

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So, if you want “horse talk,” there are plenty of your neighbors to oblige. People like Bill Nielson can talk about his “rodeoing” days, when he was part of a national championship Cal Poly rodeo team, and about the trail competitions at Wild Oak Saddle Club in the 1970s, when it was all horsemen and no women.

And there’s Judy DeMeo, whose little-girl love affair with horses started even before age 8 when her parents took her to visit Seabiscuit at the Howard Ranch in Willits.

Judy and her husband, the late great lawyer Jack DeMeo, owned at least one thoroughbred, usually more, through the 60-plus years of their marriage. They raced them on the local circuit — Bay Meadows, the county fairs — with some success and a great deal of enjoyment.

So did Evelyn Negri and her late husband Joe, who often had a “hometown horse” on the track at the fair.

And, if you’ve read the newspapers in recent years, you know about Cavonnier, the thoroughbred owned by the late Barbara and Bob Walter which placed second (by a nose) in the Kentucky Derby in 1996.

And now it’s Windsor resident Barbara Banke and her Kendall-Jackson family’s Stonestreet Stables in Kentucky, whose filly, Lady Aurelia, has won at England’s fabled Ascot Opening Day. Not once, but twice.

So, while all you city folks may not think of this chosen spot as a home on the range, understand that there are horses of every size and service here. In addition to “all of above,” we have polo players and even some who have been known to “ride to the hounds.”

Drive off the freeways in darn near any direction. If you don’t see a horse within the hour, you’re not looking carefully.