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Sonoma County Fair officials plan for another horse racing shift, potential for lost revenue

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The California Horse Racing Board will meet Dec. 12 at Los Alamitos Race Course, and at that meeting could decide to impose a new horse racing schedule on the Sonoma County Fair. It’s a move officials say could cost the fair up to $500,000.

The struggling Sonoma County Fair expects it will lose up to $500,000 in revenue in 2020 if state regulators approve plans to delay the start of local horse racing by one week, creating a conflict with the first week of school in August that could cut deeply into fair attendance.

Fair officials are already drawing up plans for an aggressive marketing campaign for the 2020 fair while they await an oft-delayed decision next month that will determine the schedule for horse racing at fairs across the state.

The California Horse Racing Board is set to meet Dec. 12 to vote on a schedule submitted by the California Association of Racing Fairs, a cooperative of county fairs that host horse racing.

The association’s proposal would move up horse racing at the Alameda County Fair in July and push racing at the State Fair into August, forcing the Sonoma County Fair to delay its 2020 opening by one week. Because the Sonoma County Fair contracts with the same carnival company that works the State Fair in Sacramento, the Sonoma County Fair would be forced to shift everything — not just horse racing — back one week, to Aug. 6-16.

Sonoma County Fair officials, including CEO Becky Bartling, contend the proposed schedule change is unworkable, pointing to the conflict for kids between school and livestock auctions.

Decoupling the racing schedule from the fair isn’t a practical solution and would likely be the death knell for Sonoma County’s track, officials said. The horse track draws far fewer spectators — and up to 50% less revenue — on days when the fair isn’t open.

Local officials aren’t waiting any longer to start planning for 2020.

“We have to,” Bartling said. “We’re going to be looking at ways to increase attendance — ways to offset that as much as we possibly can.”

Bartling attended a meeting of the California Horse Racing Board last Thursday in Del Mar, urging the board to reject scheduling changes that would hurt the Sonoma County Fair. She presented estimates showing the fair could lose as much as $500,000 if it was pushed back another week.

Bartling also described the fair’s history of being bounced around, including schedule shifts in 2014 and 2017. Each time, fair leaders have complained of lost revenue. This year, the fair took in about $75,000 from horse racing, continuing a plunge that started more than a decade ago.

Sonoma County Fair Board President Max Mickelsen deferred comment to Bartling.

Officials learned of the proposed scheduling change in September and have been working to combat the change. Heather Borck, exhibits coordinator for the Sonoma County Fair, sent an email urging fair stakeholders to write letters to the California Horse Racing Board and provided a list of five talking points, including the negative impact the shift would have on schools or youth and the importance of racing to the fair.

Bartling is not sure any of it, including the blitz of letters from people involved in Sonoma County agriculture, has made much difference.

“Whether that had an impact or not, I don’t know,” Bartling said. “So far I haven’t seen that it has had an impact.”

Given their lack of success at fending off imposed schedule changes and accompanying revenue losses, fair officials aren’t waiting on the final decision. Bartling described plans to do “creative, fun promotions” while school is in session in an effort to get kids to come to the fair after school.

She also said she’ll continue to push back on the schedule change.

“If we don’t get what we need for next year, we’ll continue to push,” Bartling said. “We have a strong race meet, we have a turf track and the horsemen love to come here.”

Up next

The California Horse Racing Board will meet Dec. 12 at Los Alamitos Race Course, and at that meeting could decide to impose a new horse racing schedule on the Sonoma County Fair. It’s a move officials say could cost the fair up to $500,000.

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