06/19/2012 12:26PM

Pleasanton: Northern California fair season kicks off


Northern California fairs are coming off a banner 2011, with Stockton, Pleasanton, and the California State Fair in Sacramento all surpassing their 2010 handles despite running fewer days.

The 2012 summer season begins Thursday with a new schedule that starts with the Alameda County Fair at Pleasanton, an improved purse package that surpasses Golden Gate Fields at most levels, and a varied and comprehensive stakes schedule.

“We’re adapting to changing times,” said Chris Korby, executive director of the California Authority of Racing Fairs.

There were reasons for last year’s success. The San Joaquin County Fair at Stockton offered free fair admission in its final year leading off the circuit. The Alameda County Fair set an attendance record with 452,000 visitors, which undoubtedly helped racing as admission to the track is free once you are in the fair.

But Korby points to another reason for the success at the fair circuit last year.

“We reduced racing one day a week, but showed an overall increase in racing handle,” he said. “Fewer racing days made for better fields, and a better quality program led to better handle.

“The hallmark of our program has to be quality, even if we sacrifice a few racing dates.”

Jeanne Wasserman, director of operations at Pleasanton, concurred, saying fans she talked with said they felt Pleasanton had better wagering fields last year.

The fair circuit no longer is a time for trainers to rest horses. There are stakes in every category, including the first open filly and mare stakes of the year.

The fairs have geared up their recruitment program, with several trainers from Arizona already here and running horses at Golden Gate Fields.

The purse structure leads racing secretary Tom Doutrich to believe that some Southern California trainers whose runners may not fit well at Del Mar may send a string of horses to the fairs.

“I think people are taking a fresh look at Northern California, with the purses at the fairs,” Korby said.

Pleasanton, which is celebrating its 100th fair this year, is going all out again in hopes of building on last year’s success.

The track has seven Thoroughbred stakes scheduled, and on Saturday the track will host a Grade 3 Arabian stakes, the Sheikh Zayed Bil Sultan Al Nahyan Cup, which has a $20,000 purse.

The race was awarded to Pleasanton by the H.H. Sheik Mansoor Global Arabian Flat Racing Festival, which provided added money for several Arabian stakes on the fair circuit last year. It is the fifth race in a worldwide series and one of only two in the United States.

The track will continue its popular daily putting contest and Win-Place-Show promotion. It also will have three giveaways tied to the Win-Place-Show promotion, with T-shirts given on June 21, binoculars June 29, and a special racing cup July 6.

The track has created a new Paddock Patio with a tent for shade and has enlarged its winner’s circle to accommodate groups.

The Paddock Patio will be the site of daily handicapping seminars beginning June 24. Thursday through Saturday of the first week, the seminar, hosted by track announcer Frank Mirahmadi and Dennis Miller, will be at its old site in the grassy area in front of the food court.

Among the seminar guests are jockeys Aaron Gryder and Russell Baze, trainer Jeff Bonde, and agent Ray Harris. A special morning workout seminar will be held Saturday, June 30, with tickets available at the regular seminars.

Shelley Riley, trainer of 1992 Kentucky Derby runner-up Casual Lies who was stabled at Pleasanton, and the Seabiscuit Foundation will be featured with historic displays at the fair.