Piper at Gate 2 checking out
When the 98th annual Alameda County Fair ends its 17-day run Sunday night, Al Piper can go back to his ranch near Tracy and get some rest. For the last three weeks, Piper has supervised Gate 2 at the fairgrounds, opening the gate at 6 a.m. every day except Tuesday (when the fair was closed) and then closing down the gatehouse at 8 p.m. when the special pass holders quit coming. Gate 2 is the first driveway on Bernal Avenue after crossing Pleasanton Avenue and is the coveted entrance for VIPs, including members of the fair board of directors, vendors who don't stay overnight in trailers, and those who need quick and close access for special reasons. It opens into a free and spacious parking lot which makes it attractive to those who'd prefer not to spend $8 at the regular lot or walk from Case Avenue or downtown as hundreds do. Piper has heard all of the reasons motorists need to park there, but since he doesn't issue passes, it's not difficult to turn away those without the proper credentials.
Piper, who's 70, was been working the fair since 1975, starting as an assistant stable superintendent, checking in race horses that were shipped to the fairgrounds for their one day of racing. He was often accompanied by his daughter Ruth, who was then active in the 4-H club and raised horses, pigs and even some beef cattle to show at the fair. The youngest of Piper's four children, she's now a college business major although fair recruiters keep urging her to use skills developed on the family's 13-1/2-acre ranch on the other side of the Altamont to train ponies on the Pleasanton track. Piper and his wife Hedy have three other children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
For Piper, a job at the fair is temporary, generally for the time the fair is here. He retired two years ago from his full-time job as chief engineer at Macy's where he worked since 1962, serving the maintenance and engineering needs of Macy's and other Federal Department Stores from Sacramento to the Tri-Valley. At one time that included elevators, escalators and heating and air conditioning, responsibilities that kept him on the road much of the time and always on call. When he heard about the Alameda County fair job, he arranged his vacation time from Macy's to come to the fair. A machinist mate in the Navy for 5-1/2 years, Piper, a Minnesota native, took his discharge here. The next day he took his machinist skills to the Engineers Union Hall in Oakland and was dispatched to three different jobs that day. He takes pride in saying he's never been out of work or needed unemployment insurance, a feat he attributes to his Navy training.
A racing fan, Piper knows horses. He bet on them at the Pleasanton track and at Golden Gate Fields where some of his horses raced. He said the Pleasanton track was closed last Wednesday due to a shortage of horses, a growing problem in California where the racehorse business has become very expensive. The average race horse today probably pays the wages of 28-30 people when you consider the various people involved in getting the horse to the track, Piper said, so the horse has to earn some money along the way. The average number of horses in each race is 10 and there can be up to eight races a day at a track. Each horse only runs once a day and then rests for up to 14 days before coming back. If you see a horse that hasn't raced within the last 14-20 days, don't bet on it, Piper adds, because it's out of shape by then. On the other hand, a horse that has run in the last 10 days and is already coming back looks ready to go and could win.
Piper has found great camaraderie at the Pleasanton fairgrounds and will spend Sunday night and Monday in long goodbyes. Most of those he has known through the years keep coming back, although some are getting older, have also retired from their career jobs and are moving away. For him, the Alameda fair is like family and he looks forward to being back at Gate 2 in Pleasanton again next June.