In just six short months, the Alameda County Fair will draw hundreds of thousands of people for ferris wheel rides, concerts, pig races, cotton candy and horse racing.
This year's dates have changed, a result of an additional four days of horse racing that's been added to make up for the closure of Bay Meadows race track in San Mateo, which shut down last September. This summer, the fair and horse racing will run from July 1-19. The track goes dark on Mondays and Tuesdays.
The additional days, allocated by the California Horse Racing Board, which governs horse racing in the state, usually go to the Solano County Fair in Vallejo. The decision was made by the board in November to transfer them to Pleasanton because the Solano County Fair will be ending horse racing operations, although Solano is requesting the board approve a week-long run this summer as a last hurrah.
That closure and the one at Bay Meadows is a trend statewide, with more and more race tracks shutting down, including the possible closure of Hollywood Park in Southern California. Golden Gate Fields in Berkeley is now the primary race track in the Bay Area, absorbing Bay Meadows' racing dates. The Pleasanton track is poised to be a secondary racing facility.
Since the fall, the Alameda County Fairgrounds has taken in more than double the amount of horses who train at the year-round facility, the only one of its kind in Northern California.
"Currently, we have over 600 horses stabled and training in our barn area," said Rick Pickering, who is the CEO of the Alameda County Fairgrounds. "Normally, this time of year we would have a little over 200."
What does it mean?
"It means more workouts each day on the track, so additional soil amendments to the track are being made," he said.
The Pleasanton race track is different than Bay Meadows and Golden Gate Fields in Berkeley because it has a natural track made of sands and soils, as opposed to a synthetic surface.
But the stalls' composition of cinderblock and concrete will hold up well, Pickering said, adding that all of the race barns also have new roofs as part of the fairgrounds' 1-megawatt solar panel project installed four years ago.
Outside the traditional summer fair racing, Pleasanton could begin adding racing as soon as 2010 during different parts of the year. The matter will continually be discussed by the horse racing board.
Pickering said he sees the possibility of additional dates as a plus.
"The track at the fairgrounds is the oldest, one-mile track in America," he said. "In 2008, we celebrated our 150th year as a one-mile track. There's certainly a large amount of support for continuing that history."
What is unclear is if Pleasanton begins to play a bigger role in horse racing to help Golden Gate Fields take some of the additional dates, who will pay for the needed improvements to the track. With a larger schedule, the track would need to be updated to a synthetic surface, which Pickering said could cost $9 million to $12 million. Currently, Golden Gate Fields, Del Mar, Hollywood Park and Santa Anita race tracks all have synthetic tracks.
"As a nonprofit corporation, we do not see ourselves going into debt, borrowing money for improvements," he said. "We are a training operation and the horse racing industry wanted to bring more horses here, so they are financially supporting our training operation. If the California horse racing industry supports a synthetic surface and capital improvements in Pleasanton, they would need to come forward with the financing tools to make that happen."
Aside from the track, parts of the grandstand would need to be enclosed with glass if winter racing were to be added. As for noise and traffic, Pickering said he doesn't expect racing outside of the summer fair to have a negative impact in the community. Racing typically runs outside of peak traffic commute times and fans would typically have the reverse commute, Pickering said. Also, there would be no nighttime racing, and noise levels aren't expected to be high as year-round racing attracts roughly 2,500 fans, as opposed to more than triple that during the county fair.
Of course, all talk of future improvements and additional dates is preliminary, Pickering said.
"It's the infamous chicken and egg discussion," he said. "It makes no sense for anyone to come forward with money to do major improvements without the guarantee of additional days of racing. We have the luxury of talking about it and strategizing on those developments, but short of additional days of racing and a mechanism of paying for the improvements, they're wonderful ideas and concepts."
The struggling economy could also push back any expansion plans in the horse racing industry.
"The economy has had an effect on gambling across the country," Pickering said. Traditionally, gambling holds its own during bad economic times, but as we've seen in the last six months, gambling, whether it's slot machines or table games or horse racing or even lottery sales, have been down."