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Sonoma County Fair may start later in summer 2015

The Sonoma County Fair will consider shifting its dates later into the summer in 2015 after state horse racing officials shifted the traditional track schedule to benefit the State Fair in Sacramento, fair officials said.

Despite objections by Sonoma County's state legislators and powerful racing industry groups, the California Horse Racing Board voted 5-2 to authorize racing at CalExpo, home to the state fair, during the last week in July, allowing the state fair to run horse racing for all three of its weeks rather than the usual two.

The new schedule runs afoul of the customary start of the Sonoma County Fair, which had been planning to open the last week in July and wrap up before the second week in August. The revised schedule would start racing on July 30 and wrap up Aug. 16.

The Horse Racing Board rejected a similar proposal last year for the 2014 season after Sonoma County Fair officials said it was too late to move the previously scheduled dates, July 24 to Aug. 10. The fair battled the 2015 proposal by arguing that several major school districts in the county start the year in mid-August and yet more may do so.

If the fair is forced deeper in August, "we will experience, we think, substantial drops in attendance and significant drops in staffing" because teachers represent a substantial portion of the seasonal staff at the fair, said Fair Board President Lisa Carre?.

The California Thorougbred Trainers and the Thoroughbred Owners of California protested the change, saying that the weather is better in Santa Rosa than Sacramento at that time of year, making it safer and more pleasant for riders and horses. The Santa Rosa Fairgrounds also features a grass track, which many owners and trainers prefer to the dirt-only track in Sacramento.

"We don't believe that Santa Rosa should be punished and pushed back when they made the commitment with the turf track," said Charlie Daugherty, deputy director of the California Thoroughbred Trainers.

The proposal was pushed by Commission member Steve Beneto, a former Cal Expo board member. He billed it as a way to make sure that all the major fairs in Northern California, including Alameda and Sonoma counties and the State Fair, could get three weeks of racing time. He has consistently denied that shifting the Sonoma County fair dates would hurt that operation at all.

"We're not trying to hurt Santa Rosa ... we're just moving a week," he told critics at Friday's meeting. "It's not a matter of hurting anybody - I don't know where you guys are coming from."

The dispute between the Sonoma County and state fair drew became a high-level political issue as well, with both sides enlisting support of local state legislators. State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, weighed in along on behalf of Cal Expo with other Sacramento-area legislators, while the entire delegation representing Sonoma County signed a letter protesting the change.

Fair officials say it would be possible to stick to the normal fair schedule and run the final week of racing after the fair ends, but the one time they ran races outside of the fair dates, attendance and revenue dropped precipitously.

Whether the county fair board will be willing move its customary dates isn't clear yet, Carre? said. She said the fair would "Do everything in our power" to make the fair dates and racing dates coincide, but "we need to make a sound business decision."

"What we will be doing is a cost-benefit analysis here," she said. "We don't know what the schools will do (about starting dates); we don't know whether we can afford to do a fair (in the later week) ... unfortunately, we won't know for months."

(You can reach Staff Writer Sean Scully at 521-5313 or sean.scully@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BeerCountry.)

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