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In 1905, the Santa Rosa City Council temporarily suspended the midnight closing law for all saloons. For four days, the bars were open all night. All because "the horsemen" were in town.

This historical gem, uncovered by researcher Dee Blackman, is proof positive that 100 years ago, Santa Rosa, with its fast race track and reputation for horse breeding, was a destination for buyers, trainers and bettors from all over California. Racing meets that drew people by the trainload were regular events. Is it possible this could happen again?

For those who labor in the pastures of history, the very idea can cause ghost horses to ride across our landscape. And it's certainly a bit of history to make tavern owners dream of turning back the clock. That's no longer a local option. But the prospect of a renewed interest in horse racing, based on the completion of the fancy new turf track at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, is enough to create a gleeful optimism among innkeepers and restaurant and bar owners around Sonoma County.

The addition of a grass track should attract faster horses, and the faster the horses, the higher the stakes, the fatter the bettors' wallets, the better it is for business.

A return to those glory years, when the county was a horseplayer's heaven, may have been what Jack DeMeo, a former fair director and racing chairman, had in mind.

DeMeo, a lawyer, has a personal history with the Santa Rosa track. He insists that his lifelong love of horses and horse racing began when he was 5 or 6 years old and his mother took him to a livery stable at the fairgrounds, where he was allowed to gallop on the old track. He and his wife, Judy, own some 15 thoroughbreds, including several that race on the fair circuit.

It was DeMeo who called a meeting a dozen years ago to talk about building a grass track here. At that meeting at the Occidental restaurant of another horse owner, Joe Negri, Jack recalls that representatives from Bay Meadows and Golden Gate Fields snickered at the notion that Sonoma County could pull off such an extravagant plan.

You'll have to excuse DeMeo, therefore, if he now mutters "I told you so." The new $3 million turf track, which will be dedicated on the first Saturday of this year's county fair with a "toast" from 5,000 souvenir champagne glasses filled with cider, could make Santa Rosa, once again, a preferred destination for horse breeders and horse players.

It is only the third turf track in Northern California - Bay Meadows and Golden Gate Fields being the other two. As such, it promises to not only entice more and faster thoroughbreds to race at our fair, but to attract other race meets. If it comes off as planned, it will indeed be a return to past glories.

EVER SINCE the 1850s, when Julio Carrillo, generally regarded as the founder of Santa Rosa, bet building lots in his new town that his fast mares could beat all comers, horses have been a big deal.

Before this area became Wine Country - even before it was Hop, Prune, Chicken or Gravenstein Country - it was Horse Country.

Turn back 120 years, to the 1880s, and you'll find that the Agricultural Park Association (a property that is now the county fairgrounds) boasted of "the fastest track on the Pacific Coast" and Santa Rosa was already one of the important racing towns in the state. Ladies were admitted to the covered grandstand that could seat 500 race fans. All the facilities were considered top drawer.

Santa Rosa's first claim to equine fame had centered around a trotting stallion named Anteeo, owned by Bennett Valley vineyardist and vintner Isaac DeTurk. DeTurk's round barn, a west Santa Rosa landmark that is now part of the city's park system, was built to house his racing stable.

Anteeo was so successful that DeTurk "syndicated" him, forming a partnership with Robert Crane, George Trowbridge, George Guerne and Capt. Guy Grosse. They called themselves the Santa Rosa Breeders' Association, with the Agricultural Park as headquarters.

In 1885 Anteeo won a high-stakes ($1,000!) match race in San Francisco against a well-known trotter named Adair. He won all three heats and set a track record, instantly becoming extremely valuable as a stud. Breeders came from all over the state to see and bid for Anteeo colts at the Agricultural Park.

Anteeo sired 28 trotters with mile records of 2:30 or better and a number of valuable "Anteeo stallions" that kept his name in the trotting bloodlines for many years.

IN THE BEGINNING, it was all trotting horses on the Santa Rosa track. After the syndicate sold Anteeo and the Agricultural Park to brothers Henry and Ira Pierce, the name was changed to the Santa Rosa Stock Farm and continued in the tradition of fast trotters.

The syndicate bought a stallion with a name that sounded like a stockbroker - Sidney Dillon - whose progeny won races all over the West. Dolly Dillon and her stablemate Janice soon enjoyed the reputation of being the two fastest mares in the United States.

They were soon superseded by a younger "sister" named Lou Dillon, born on the Pierce's stock farm.

(There is a plaque on the eastern entrance to the Grace Pavilion at the fairgrounds commemorating this blessed event, although it had one of the Pierce brothers misnamed "Frank." They may have fixed it by now. I haven't checked.)

Lou Dillon gained national fame in 1903 when Millard Sanders, regarded as the most famous driver in the nation, took the mare to the East Coast racing circuit where she set a record, becoming the first harness horse in the world to trot a mile in less than two minutes.

With Lou Dillon gone from Western tracks, horsemen turned their attention to another Santa Rosa entry named Sonoma Girl, who tore up the Pacific Coast tracks and, for a time, seemed destined to break Lou Dillon's records, but only came close.

Even after the death of Henry Pierce, the stock farm track continued to be a destination, and was, in fact, the setting for the Pacific Coast Trotting Horse Association's official meets.

JIM MOORE, recently retired as fair manager, has been the overseer for the installation of the new track. He is staying on as racing director for this year's fair.

Corey Oakley, the new manager, is cautiously optimistic about the chances for more and improved racing on the new track. This is the year, after all, that Sacramento's Cal-Expo has discontinued thoroughbred racing. (That's where you can see the harness races.) And Bay Meadows has been sold, perhaps with bulldozers poised to clear the track. The future of Solano County's track is uncertain.

So, while there's no question, with the growth of the Indian casino industry and off-track betting parlors, that race attendance at county fairs is generally down, Oakley sees the new track answering the question: "What do we do next?"

The challenge is to convince thoroughbred owners to keep racing quality horses in Northern California.

"There's always been a dividing line between the fair circuit and the private tracks" (like Bay Meadows and Golden Gate Fields), said Oakley. "I think the line is blurring."

He does acknowledge the irony in the fact that, at a time when the number of tracks is diminishing, "the fair has invested $3 million in horse racing."

But, he said, referring to the 1930s legislative decision that repealed the state ban on horse betting, "the fair circuit is where pari-mutuel betting started, not at the corporate tracks.

"We're the past. And my guess is we're going to be the future."

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