Local lawmakers oppose horse-racing shift for Sonoma County Fair

Sonoma County lawmakers have signed a joint letter opposing a plan to shift the dates of horse racing next year to favor the state fair at the expense of the Sonoma County Fair, a move that could cost the local fair $150,000 or more.

"Of course there is an economic impact to the county and the fair, but there is also an impact to the family activities that people have engaged in for years in Sonoma County," said Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-San Rafael, who spearheaded the joint opposition.

The California Horse Racing Board is considering a plan that would allot three weeks of horse racing to each of the three major Northern California fairs that have a racetrack — Alameda County, Sonoma County and the state fair — during the summer of 2014. That's more than any of the three facilities enjoyed in 2013.

To accommodate that without overlap between the events, however, the state fair would get the week of July 24-30, which coincides with the first week of the Sonoma County Fair. Sonoma's final week of racing would be pushed back to Aug. 11-17, after the fair is set to close and after the largest school districts in the county have reopened following summer break.

"Requiring the Sonoma County Fair to reschedule deeper into August would result in decreased revenue and participation," the legislators wrote to racing board Chairman David Israel. "Youth involvement by 4-H and Future Farmers of America would significantly decrease with school back in session. This would also have a negative impact on the fair's temporary employees, many of whom are local teachers and students."

Sonoma County Fair Manager Tawny Tesconi has said running horses without the fair operating at the same time would depress revenue so much that it wouldn't be worth it to even race during that final week. And the dates for the fair — July 24 through Aug. 10 — are set more than a year in advance, so it would be impossible to shift them this late in the process.

Losing the week of racing would cost between $150,000 and $200,000, which the cash-strapped fair had been counting on, Tesconi said. The fair is expecting to barely break even this year after years of losing money, but it is already expecting a number of new expenses in 2014, including up to $85,000 because of the recent hike in the state minimum wage.

Racing board member Steve Beneto, a former state fair board member, unveiled the surprise proposal at the board's September meeting, four months after Tesconi had submitted a request for horse racing days that coincided with the fair's scheduled dates. He said at the time that his proposal was endorsed by Gov. Jerry Brown.

Tesconi quickly reached out to area legislators for help. All five signed the letter, which was delivered late Thursday, a week before the board's next meeting on Oct. 24.

"I think it is very important that the legislative delegation be united," said State Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis.

The county's Democratic party weighed in last week as well, writing to the board to object.

"Requiring the track to be dark for the first week of the fair is unreasonable and would result in a significant financial shortfall for one of the most widely attended county fairs, as well as decreasing the overall interest and participation in thoroughbred racing in the state," Chairman Stephen Gale wrote.

Beneto has not commented publicly on the proposal, and it's not clear how much support it really has from the governor. A Brown spokesman said he was unaware of any statements the governor has made about racing at the state fair, and he said Brown does not anticipate making any comments before the next board meeting.

Board members said during the September meeting that it is becoming increasingly difficult to balance the schedule for racing and fair days because school districts are pushing the start of school earlier and earlier in August.

Wolk and Levine said the state Legislature might need to step in to broker a deal among the fairs to allocate dates equitably, though they said such a change would need to be for the 2015 season at the earliest because of the long lead time for scheduling fairs.

"Even if there is supposed to be a change in schedule, this is something that takes a little thought," Wolk said. "It's not something that should be sprung on folks."

(You can reach Staff Writer Sean Scully at 521-5313 or

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