08/08/2014 2:31PM

Hovdey: Strong bouquet of turf at Santa Rosa


Believe it or not, there has been another racetrack operating in California for the past couple of weeks equipped with a fully operational turf course and the participation of Hall of Fame personalities. And a Ferris wheel.

That would be the Sonoma County Fair at Santa Rosa, gateway to California’s wine country, where the 13-day meet concludes Sunday with the running of the $50,000 Cavonnier Juvenile Stakes at six furlongs.

Richard Lewis, Santa Rosa’s director of racing, reports that attendance and handle are down from last year, but average field size is up, which for some reason is the only language racetrack managers are inclined to speak anymore unless otherwise prompted. Lewis sighed and tended to agree.

“When the day’s over, if we put on a good program, we’ve done our job,” Lewis said. “We can’t go out there and make people bet.”

Santa Rosa exists at the rim of California’s most booming region. The fair and its racing have a very loyal local following – more than 300,000 will attend the 16-day run by Sunday’s final day – but the 13 programs of horse racing require the participation of a certain Bay Area demographic that shows up and bets with both hands.

“They may be a small number in terms of overall attendance,” Lewis noted. “But they’re a huge pocket. They bet the money.”

With the typical precision of a regional racetracker always coming or going, and always on the clock, Lewis said that driving time from Golden Gate Fields, on the eastern side of the San Francisco Bay, usually takes “about an hour and five minutes.” For the opening of this summer’s Santa Rosa meet, that number ballooned.

“We were fighting a huge NHRA drag-racing event right here at Sears Point,” Lewis said, referring to the world-class Sonoma Speedway, part of the NASCAR circuit. “I had people tell me opening day they loved to come here, but they couldn’t spend three hours in the car. We even had a van take three hours to get here from Golden Gate carrying two of the horses in a five-horse allowance field that had to be scratched down to three. That’s hard to recover from.”

Welcome to the modern world of racing, the one that exists behind the bright lights of established summer destinations like Saratoga, Del Mar, and Monmouth Park. It’s a world on a shoestring, playing second or third fiddle to whatever else happens to be going on in town. There is a constant scramble for horses and horse owners, while management puts on a show from memory, depending more often than not on an economic model that is a long way from self-sustaining.

Racing at the Sonoma County Fair suffers from the same assumptions as do many tracks located in attractive communities. They should be doing just fine, right? Santa Rosa is the major city in the corridor running from Marin County up through towns like Novato and Sebastopol. Thoroughbreds (plus a sprinkling of other breeds) should be a big deal and a fairly simple sell. But with population growth comes competition. The Sonoma Speedway is only one of dozens of distractions for summer travelers who have discovered that there is a California north of San Francisco.

Lewis has 20 years of experience as a trainer and has recently been licensed as one of California’s growing number of safety stewards. By the time the Cavonnier is in the books, his meet will have run seven stakes races in 13 days and enough grass races to make Del Mar management green with envy.

“I don’t want this to be taken the wrong way, but had the timing been different, and Del Mar temporarily suspended its grass racing sooner, we might have been in a position to offer even more turf opportunities for horses coming from the south,” Lewis noted. “As it was, we had Neil Drysdale and Richard Mandella run horses here, which we always welcome.”

Sunday’s Cavonnier features six 2-year-olds, including the first-time starter Stand and Salute representing the Hall of Fame team of Jerry Hollendorfer and Russell Baze. The field also features the maiden winner Colorado Strong, who was last seen in public throwing a fit in the saddling paddock at Del Mar before the running of the July 30 Graduation Stakes. He was a precautionary scratch, so it’s good to see he is in shape to get back in the game.

The Cavonnier honors the Santa Anita Derby winner who put a spotlight on the Santa Rosa region in 1996, when he came within a very slim nose of winning the Kentucky Derby. Cavonnier, a son of Batonnier, was bred at the Vine Hill Farm of Robert and Barbara Walter, located just a few miles west of town, and won his first race at the Sonoma County Fair.

“Up until a few years ago, Cavonnier would put in an appearance on the day of his race,” Lewis said. “It was always special and very popular with the fans. As far as I’m concerned, there will always be a Cavonnier Stakes at Santa Rosa.”