Updated on 09/17/2011 10:43AM

All's fair in north country

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SAN MATEO, Calif. - The northern California fair circuit is mixing nostalgia with 21st-century technology this year.

The San Joaquin County Fair in Stockton began the annual summer circuit of seven fair meets Wednesday. With Bay Meadows ending its spring season Sunday, Stockton will race without an overlap for its second week. The fair season concludes in October with the Big Fresno Fair.

Given the agricultural heritage of the county fairs, horse racing has long been a natural component of each. Pleasanton, the second stop on the circuit, dates its racetrack back to 1858. Support from the fairs helped to legalize racing in California, and Stockton was the first track to hold legalized wagering in California, in 1933. Vallejo is the youngest member of the fair circuit, conducting racing for the first time in 1951.

A relaxed atmosphere

Fair racing combines Thoroughbreds with other breeds: Quarter Horses, Arabians, and Appaloosas. In recent years, mules have been added to the mix and have become a popular attraction, thanks to the presence of Black Ruby, the world champion mule who has won 51 of her 59 starts.

Each fair has its own midway area with games and rides, and the fairs combine commercial and artistic exhibits, with a wide range of other events, including junior livestock competitions.

The nostalgia of the fairs will be evident each day on the cover of the racing racing program, which will feature a photo of Seabiscuit with his first seven foals. The photo was used as a Christmas card by Seabiscuit's owner, Charles Howard, in the early 1940's.

In addition, each fair, with the exception of the Humboldt County Fair in Ferndale, will give away Seabiscuit bobblehead dolls, and the Alameda County Fair in Pleasanton will also have a T-shirt giveaway featuring the photo that appears on the program.

The fairs are also arranging tie-ins to "Seabiscuit" the movie, which will be released this summer while racing is at Santa Rosa, which is near the Howard farm where Seabiscuit resided after his retirement.

Ferndale will have its own bobblehead giveaway featuring Black Ruby.

New and improved

The fairs have made a number of improvements this year - both for patrons and for horsemen.

Stockton, Pleasanton, Santa Rosa, and Sacramento will all have a portable jumbo screen showing patrons both local and simulcast races. The screen has previously been used at Pleasanton and Sacramento.

Forrest White, Stockton's CEO and director of racing, sees the screen as a boon for the fair circuit.

"Now people can sit in box seats and see the imports," he said. "I hope it will generate new interest in the whole product."

The California Authority of Racing Fairs has upgraded its safety and maintenance programs this year in the hope of attracting more horses.

"We have purchased a rock-picker that sifts dirt and takes out rocks," Chris Korby, the authority's executive director, said. "We want to have safer, more consistent surfaces at all tracks."

The fair authority has acquired another grader, which is used to prepare the fair tracks. It also uses treaded tractors rather than wheeled vehicles to spread the weight of the vehicle more evenly and eliminate ruts from tire tracks.

The care of the racing surfaces is important because the Stockton, Vallejo, Santa Rosa, and Ferndale tracks are not open year-round.

Living conditions in the backstretch areas have been improved. The fairs have met the state code for living conditions on the backstretch, White said.

"We are 100 percent tack room-compliant," he said. "Once we made a commitment to race, we wanted to do it right. We're the first fair in the licensing process, and it's important to be compliant."

In an attempt to emphasize horse racing, the paddock at Fresno has been tripled in size and redesigned so that horses are more visible to casual fair-goers.

Changes on the horizon

Santa Rosa is making a major investment to upgrade its racing product. Already the most popular stop on the circuit, Santa Rosa will add a turf course next year and will likely try to add additional dates should Vallejo decide to end racing.

The 2003 fair season could be the last for the Solano County Fair in Vallejo, which is evaluating its future.

According to Pat Skelton, assistant general manager of the Solano County Fair, the fair is currently taking "very early steps" with developers to investigate possible development of the fair property, which is located directly across the street from a major amusement park.

Attendance on upswing

While controversy remains over whether prime summer dates would be better used at the major Bay Area tracks, Golden Gate Fields and Bay Meadows, handle on the fairs topped $170 million last year.

Attendance can only be estimated since racetrack admission is free at most fairs. The Authority of Racing Fairs estimates that 1 million fans see racing on the circuit each year and has long stressed its role in introducing new fans to the sport. Grandstands are traditionally filled at Santa Rosa, Ferndale, and Pleasanton.

"Ontrack attendance is better than five years ago," White said, adding that "the people at the races look a little bit different than the fans we see at the simulcast facility.

"One reason for the success at Saratoga and Del Mar is they have seasons. For the fairs, it's a season. Every year for two weeks, we hype the community about racing."

While promotions and advertising may lure fans to the races, it's the brand of old-time racing the fairs offer that has allowed them to survive in the modern world.