When we talk about horses around here, we readily admit that our grass isn’t blue like Kentucky nor do our biggest “spreads” come anywhere close to the 900,000-plus acres of the King Ranch in Texas. But that doesn’t mean we can’t engage in “horse talk” with the best of them.
Sonoma County has a colorful history of agricultural, recreational and financial involvement with, as the old guys used to say, “horseflesh.”
The county isn’t speckled with private tracks on ranches as it was in the early days, when winning and losing on trotting horses was an accepted leisure activity for the pioneers.
It’s indicative that Julio Carrillo, a son of Santa Rosa’s “first family,” opened a livery stable in his new town in the 1850s — which offered him an excuse to buy and sell trotters. (Julio was also an inveterate gambler. If you know your Courthouse Square history, you know he lost most of his inherited land betting on his prize mares.) His mares had plenty of competition as the American settlers moved in.
An exhibit at the Museum of History will open next Saturday to take a look back at hoof prints on the historical landscape.
Agriculture has diversified since Julio, and trotters aren’t the racing draw they once were. But horses of all gaits and breeds are still very much a part of the county’s “stock” trade.
There were 24,000 horses counted in Sonoma County in the 2013 horse census, up from 18,500 horses three decades earlier, according to a story by Wanda Smith in a recent issue of the Sonoma County Horse Journal.
Throw in the 36,000 equestrians, 140 trainers and 125 boarding facilities and pretty soon you’re talking about impact on the local economy.
In the 1880s, when trotters were still the stock in trade, Sonoma County was a destination for buyers, even those from the East Coast.
Isaac DeTurk, who owned a winery along the railroad tracks (and a round barn for his horses next to it), had a stallion named Anteeo that raced around Northern California. It was so successful that DeTurk “syndicated” the horse, forming the Santa Rosa Breeders’ Association with partners Guy Grosse, Robert Crane, the Laughlin brothers, George Trowbridge and George Guerne.
You might say that was when horses became really big business here. Some of those partners’ names are still on streets and roads and towns and schools — even melons.
Anteeo, who set a record for California-bred horses in an 1885 match race in San Francisco, went on to trot on eastern tracks, and populated Sonoma County horse farms with fast colts that were considered, in the words of the day, “the nucleus of the county’s blooded herd.”
Santa Rosa remained a “horse-trading” center into the 20th century when the Pierce Brothers track at the Agricultural Park (now the county fairgrounds) became the site of the Pacific Coast Trotters’ Breeders annual meets.
That’s where the Pierce-owned fast stallion Sidney Dillon sired a filly named Lou Dillon, the first harness horse in the world to run a two-minute mile. (There is a plaque honoring Lou Dillon’s birthplace at the eastern entrance to the fairground’s main pavilion. (At least it used to be there. I haven’t looked in a couple of years.)