Horse racing has long gone hand in hand with the Sonoma County Fair, as much a staple of the annual summertime event as carnival rides and deep-fried food, but it may no longer be the reliable revenue driver it once was, causing the fairgrounds to reconsider the role of the races moving forward.
To be sure, horse races still bring in a lot of money: They produced $1.6 million in revenue for the fair last year, about 24 percent of the fair’s total revenue. But the racing proceeds were down more than 10 percent from five years earlier, and officials estimate the number of race attendees also shrank about 23 percent over the same time period, as the number of racing days fell from 15 to 11.
“We’re seeing less people coming on a day-to-day basis,” said CEO Becky Bartling. “We still have good sales in our season box seats ... But what we’re not seeing as much is the person that says, ‘Hey, let’s go to the races’ — that spur of the moment person that might come once or twice.”
Advance sales for this year’s fair and races, which both start today, have been on par with last year’s race sales, according to Bartling. During the 11-day fair, races will run Thursdays through Sundays between Aug. 3 and 13, and Aug. 18 to 20 after the fair.
Horse racing at Sonoma County’s fairgrounds has in recent years been afflicted by some of the same trends playing out across the industry, as the proliferation of other gambling and entertainment options have diluted interest among would-be bettors.
Nationwide, bettors wagered about $10.7 billion on horse racing last year, up slightly from the year before but down more than 29 percent from 2003, when wagering totaled about $15.2 billion, according to the Jockey Club.
At the same time, the number of horse races in the United States has plummeted, too. The Jockey Club reported 37,614 United States races in 2016 — nearly half of the number of races held in 1989. California, in particular, has seen the closure of two prominent racetracks in the last decade: Bay Meadows and Hollywood Park. The latter will become the future home of the Los Angles Rams and Los Angeles Chargers football teams.
Industry experts point to a number of factors fueling the declines in horse racing, chief among them the increased competition for the gambler’s dollar. As legal casinos and other forms of gambling have spread across the nation, the prospect of wagering a couple dollars on a horse race has become a less attractive option to many bettors, experts say.
Indeed, the more crowded gambling landscape has likely been “the most detrimental” factor weighing on horse racing over the last 20 years, said Jim Mulvihill, spokesman for the National Thoroughbred Racing Association.
“There’s casino gambling everywhere, there’s expansion of lotteries, there’s sports gambling — both legal and illegal — that is more readily available than ever before, there’s fantasy sports all over the place,” Mulvihill said. “A lot of people that would have gone to a racetrack to have some fun and bet a few dollars in the past now just prefer to go to an air-conditioned casino and pull the lever or push the button of a slot machine.”