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Racing Schedule

Thursday, Aug. 3, Aug. 10: Post time 1:15 p.m.

Friday, Aug. 4, Aug. 11, Aug. 18: Post time 2:15 p.m.

Saturday, Aug. 5, Aug. 12, Aug. 19: Post time 1:15 p.m.

Sunday, Aug. 6, Aug. 13, Aug. 20: Post time 1:15 p.m.

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.

Increasing competition

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.”

To stir interest among casual racegoers, the Sonoma County Fair has rolled out a number of creative promotions, including a “Derby Dog Dash” where attendees’ small canines can compete against each other in between races. This year’s fair will also feature a new beer festival on Saturday that includes a ticket to the races.

Attracting younger crowd

Part of the challenge for local horse racing has been its apparent struggle to attract younger people, Bartling said, and she hoped the promotional techniques would help with that problem. But as the fair tries new, more inventive ways of increasing attendance at the overall event — including a new carnival operator with more intense rides — Bartling is also looking toward a future where, perhaps, horse racing plays an even smaller role.

“For years, we had such a great attendance at the races, but now we need to look at how do we draw people to the fair that haven’t been to the fair,” she said. “Where I’ve gone is increasing programming at the fair to be more diversified … My goal is to get us to the point where those revenues from horse racing aren’t as important to us as they are today, to be quite honest.”

Mulvihill said he thought horse racing venues should aggressively promote themselves to “explain the value” of their businesses to potential customers, but he cautioned against “wasting millions of dollars” industrywide in an attempt to convert those who have never been to the racetrack before.

“I think it makes more sense to target people who have shown an interest in gambling, maybe are lapsed fans that can be welcomed back, or maybe are existing fans that can be encouraged to maybe, instead of going once a month, to go once a week,” Mulvihill said. “There are other opportunities to increase your attendance by targeting people who make more sense rather than just throwing a lot of money at hoping you’ll get somebody to maybe see a billboard randomly and try it for the first time.”

State racetracks struggling

California’s racetracks are also further limited by the fact that they cannot include slot machines, unlike the “racinos” found elsewhere in the country. Additionally, the number of thoroughbred horses bred in the United States has dropped sharply, falling from 40,333 in 1990 to 20,850 in 2016, according to the Jockey Club. California has mirrored that decline, which could be making it even more difficult for smaller races to attract gamblers’ interest.

“The magic potion is more horses — it all comes down to that,” said Mike Marten, spokesman for the California Horse Racing Board. “You got to get more horses in the races, because people like to bet on races that have 10, 11, 12 horses — not four or five horses.”

Marten said the industry would be in “pretty good shape” if the country returned to breeding the number of horses it used to, but he admitted such a prospect was unlikely.

Rene Amescua, an East Bay thoroughbred trainer and owner, said a renewed marketing push could prove to be a big boost for horse racing attendance.

“I don’t think the game’s dead by any means; I just think it needs to be promoted in a little better manner,” said Amescua, a board member of the California Thoroughbred Trainers organization. “Maybe you could have some kind of incentive, like if they bet X amount of dollars they get a free meal or offer some kind of gimmick in the grandstand part of it where you can basically eat and drink for nothing. That’s the Vegas approach, right? Basically we don’t give the fans anything.” Like Amescua, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association’s Mulvihill remains optimistic about the future of horse racing overall.

“The biggest and best days in racing are getting more popular all the time,” he said. “What we’re finding is that people are attracted to high-quality racing and high-quality on-track experiences. They go to the boutique race meets where there’s a mixture of both high-quality horse racing and a social scene that people find appealing ... Racing at the highest level is thriving. I think it’s smaller tracks and smaller racing markets that are struggling.”

You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or jd.morris@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @thejdmorris.

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