Growing up in Pleasanton in the 1960s and '70s meant you were inevitably around the horse-racing industry.
The town wasn't that big, and it seemed half the people in Pleasanton were involved with horses in some capacity. For Allen Aldrich, his initial involvement was indirect, from his time working at the Pleasanton Fairways Golf Course that was located in the infield of the race track.
"I worked at the course and was around the horses every day," Aldrich explained. "I would be out there cutting the greens (on the course) and have a stopwatch in one hand clocking the horses."
That was in the mid-1970s, and by the time Aldrich turned 18, he was getting ready to buy into a partnership on his first horse.
"We ran the horse (in Pleasanton) at the Fair in 1978, and he finished dead last," Aldrich recalled.
Aldrich has come a long way since then, and at the beginning of the Alameda County Fair and the Oak Tree at Pleasanton race meet this year, he is arguably one of the most influential men in racing, not just in Northern California but in the entire state.
After the inauspicious beginning in 1978, the next couple years he had a piece of one or two horses until finally in 1982 he made a move to become more involved in the industry.
"I went to Fresno because they needed a cook for the jockey's room," Aldrich said. "Around that time, (jockey) Mark Hanna (another Pleasanton product) fired his agent and asked if I wanted to represent him. I did that for five years, and we did well."
It gave Aldrich another view into a section of the industry, but he was hardly done. In 1986, he took a couple of his horses to Ferndale (Humboldt County Fair) and ended up getting his training license. It was also at that point his love affair began with the quaint Victorian town up on the north coast of California.
In 1992 he met his wife Karen Isbell in Ferndale. Isbell is a jockey so it was a natural match. By that point Aldrich was venturing throughout the Western states, owning and training horses at tracks from Arizona to California.
He was a busy man, constantly on the go. The end result was the creation of a new man. Aldrich was known as "Big Al" as he packed 330 pounds on to his frame, but in that span when he was crisscrossing the states he went from 330 all the way down to 220.
He is still affectionately known as "Big Al," a name that requires no last name in racing circles.
Aldrich continually had success on the small tracks, but his life would change in 2013.
She's a Tiger was a 2-year-old filly, and ownership was being put together by few people, including another longtime Pleasanton resident, Jeff Bonde, a trainer and longtime friend of Aldrich's.
"Jeff called me and wanted me to get into the partnership," said Aldrich, who was indeed convinced to buy into the horse for $150,000. "That was the most I ever spent for one-quarter ownership, let alone for full ownership."
There was something special about She's a Tiger, so much so that before her debut in 2013 -- at where else but in Pleasanton at the Alameda County Fair -- there was a huge buzz about the horse.
"That ended up being the most nervous I ever was before one of her races," Aldrich remembered.
He didn't need to worry, as the horse broke out quickly and blew away the field by nine lengths. It was a sign of things to come. The horse went on to win a race at Hollywood Park and then a pair of graded races at Del Mar.
She ended her year in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies race at Santa Anita. She dueled throughout the race, but bumped with Ria Antonia in the stretch. Even though She's a Tiger crossed the line first, she was disqualified and placed second in a questionable decision by the Santa Anita stewards.
At the end of the year, She's a Tiger was voted the Top 2-year-old Filly in the country and received an Eclipse Award, the top recognition a horse and ownership team can receive.
"That time was so unbelievable," Aldrich said. "Just the travels with her and the new friends I was able to meet. It was amazing."
In 2014, the group sold She's a Tiger to a Japanese partnership for breeding at a price tag of $2.5 million. The horse was shipped to Japan, where the luxuriousness of breeding farms is legendary.
"I cried, but I was so happy for the horse," Aldrich said.
Despite the success of his first "big horse" purchase, Aldrich is content to live on that memory. "People that chase that think it will happen again," he said of the big time. "I don't want to chase it again. I would prefer $2,500 claimers at Ferndale."
It's those desires that have made Aldrich arguably the best friend of fair racing in Northern California. Constantly facing pressure from bigger tracks like Santa Anita down south and smaller sister track Golden Gate Fields, the Northern California fairs have been locked in a battle for racing dates.
Aldrich has been at the forefront.
"In order to show his unwavering support for both the Humboldt County Fair and Alameda County Fair, Allen spent his own money to help the two fairs get extra exposure on TVG," former fair race caller Frank Mirahmadi, a good friend of Aldrich's, said about getting fair races shown on the horse racing television network.
"This is critical to the success of out-of-state wagering handle as well as something that gives the fairs great exposure," Mirahmadi added. "No other owner has ever done something like that."
Pleasanton director of racing Jeanne Wasserman has also had a chance to see up close the value of having Aldrich on your side.
"Allen Aldrich has been a huge supporter of racing fairs for years," said Wasserman, who spearheaded the drive to honor Aldrich with a Blue Ribbon award in 2014 from Western Fairs Association. "He provides sponsorship money to the fairs to help with advertising. Allen also goes to other race tracks and promotes the racing fairs."
He has embraced his role as an "ambassador" for fair racing and was elected to the Board of Directors for the Thoroughbred Owners of California (TOC), a powerful and influential group within California racing.
Even though he rose to the top of the horse-racing world with She's a Tiger, Aldrich remains committed the fair tracks.
"I grew up in (Pleasanton)," he said. "And Ferndale is my second home. You know everyone in the town and their whole town gets centered around horse racing."
Aldrich was one of the group of people that pushed for additional racing dates for Pleasanton and finally saw it come to fruition when the San Joaquin County Fair dates were allocated to Pleasanton.
There will be six additional days of racing in Pleasanton, running Sept. 23-25 and Sept. 30 to Oct. 2. If the meet turns out to be successful, more great things may be right around the corner for Pleasanton racing.
"Those extra dates could be game changers," Aldrich said. "Not just for Pleasanton but for all the fairs."
Even as Aldrich has risen in stature in the industry, he has remained fiercely loyal to his friends and to horse racing in general.
"If you are a close friend of Allen's, it is likely he's finished up a note or email in the following manner -- With love and respect, Allen Aldrich," said Mirahmadi, a top personality in horse racing in the country. "Those might be the two words that best describe how Allen treats thoroughbred racing: with love and respect."
The Alameda County Fair started on Wednesday and runs through July 4, open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day, except June 20 and 27 when the fair is closed.
Today through Sunday, June 23-26 and July 1-4
Post-times: 1:15 p.m. on Thursdays, Saturdays, Sundays, July 4; 2:15 p.m. on Fridays
* Free to attend with fair admission
Carnival hours: Tues-Thurs: 12-11 p.m.; Fri-Sun, July 4: all day.
Fireworks Spectacular: July 4, 9:30 p.m. Budweiser Grandstand, featuring the Oakland Symphony.
Adults (13-61): $12
Senior (62 and up): $10
Kids (6-12): $10
Kids (5 and under): Free
Carnival wristband: $30 Tues-Thurs; $35 Fri-Sun.
June 21 and 28: $2 Tuesdays
June 23 and 30: Seniors (62+) Free Thursdays
Today, June 24, July 1: Kids (12-under) Free Fridays
- All special pricing valid until 5 p.m.
* Editor's note: Watch for Dennis Miller's "Pick of the Day" each race-day at www.PleasantonWeekly.com.