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California Horse Racing Board imposes schedule change on Sonoma County Fair horse racing

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The state horse racing authority on Thursday voted to push back the 2020 racing schedule at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds by one week, confirming county fair officials’ worst fears and creating a conflict between the county fair and the start of the school year.

But Sonoma County Fair CEO Becky Bartling and board Chairman Max Mickelsen are treating the decision as a one-time change, pinning their hopes on persuading the state board to change its mind next year despite a unanimous vote Thursday that rebuffed Sonoma County fair officials’ concerns.

Fair officials have already taken major actions to mitigate the effects of the schedule change to Aug. 6-16, including cramming most junior livestock programs into the first week of the fair before school starts. They’re also planning a marketing blitz designed to lure families to the fair during the first week of school, which is expected to start Aug. 12.

“It’s not an ideal situation,” Bartling said. “It’s not something we want to continue doing.”

But neither Bartling nor Mickelsen are ready to sever the fair’s ties with the eight-day racing series, even though they predict it will cause a drop in attendance in 2020 by scheduling much of the final week of the fair while Sonoma County children are back in school.

The decision to pair horse racing with the fair has failed to stop a decline in revenue and attendance over the last seven years. The fair has gone from 17 days in 2013 to 11 the past three years. Paid admission has dropped from $199,826 in 2013 to $125,802 this year, declining almost every year during that stretch.

Officials have blamed fires for previous attendance drops, and pointed to recent mass shootings, like the one at the Gilroy Garlic Festival, as potential contributors to lower attendance this year.

Officials have stressed the need to attract younger fairgoers. The most consistent attendees, about 1,000 of them, show animals during the junior livestock portion of the fair. The junior livestock auctions continue to bring in steady revenue, generating $1.68 million this year, up from $1.64 million last year. But this year, the schedule will be compressed into one week and the following weekend to ensure it does not conflict with school.

Racing, meanwhile, has taken its lumps, generating less than $100,000 in revenue for the fair last year, down from $1.33 million in 2007.

But horse racing still produces some profit for the fair, noted Bartling, who said the races were “still successful.” And she said it’s hard to gauge the full economic impact of horse racing, including the money spent on fair tickets, food purchases and carnival tickets by people attending the races.

The decline in horse racing revenues in Sonoma County mirror a trend occurring at other venues across the state, which is part of the reason for the schedule shift that would benefit two larger fairs — the Alameda County Fair in Pleasanton and the State Fair in Sacramento. Next year, racing at the Alameda County Fair will start the week after the Fourth of July. The State Fair in Sacramento will be next, followed by the Sonoma County Fair.

Mickelsen said officials will immediately begin work with California Horse Racing Board officials to nail down dates for next year. The goal: move racing back to the fair’s normal schedule in 2021, which would require switching places in the schedule with the State Fair.

“We’re looking at this as a one-shot deal,” Mickelsen said.

When asked about the prudence of banking on the state board having a change of heart, Mickelsen said local fair officials have to try. If Sonoma County Fair attendance and revenues drop sharply in 2020, it could strengthen local officials’ argument to move racing up a week in 2021, he said.

Sonoma County Fair officials won’t give up, though.

“There’s no way in the world we could just simply roll over,” Mickelsen said. “We didn’t win this year, but that doesn’t mean we’re not going to turn around and try to get back our historic dates for future years.”

You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or at tyler.silvy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @tylersilvy.

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