06/19/2017 9:00AM

Pleasanton opens fair season amid hope for better days

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It is far from the best of times for California racing as the sport returns to its roots beginning Thursday, when the Northern California fair racing season starts with the Oak Tree at Pleasanton meeting.

The 12-day Pleasanton meeting runs through July 9 and is followed by fair meetings at Sacramento, Santa Rosa, Ferndale, a fall Oak Tree at Pleasanton meet, and Fresno.

After several years of increasing handle, fair betting leveled of the past several years and showed a minor dip last year. Fields during last year’s fair season averaged only 6.2 runners per race. As a result, five stakes have been eliminated for 2017.

Two of the stakes were at the Oak Tree at Pleasanton meet, and three were at the Sonoma County Fair meet in Santa Rosa, which is the only fair meet not conducted by the California Authority of Racing Fairs.

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Pleasanton has eliminated the Pleasanton Oaks, a six-furlong sprint for 3-year-old fillies, and the Oak Tree Handicap at 1 1/16 miles for older runners. That leaves only the $50,000 Juan Gonzalez Memorial (July 1) for 2-year-old fillies, the $50,000 Oak Tree Sprint (July 4) for 3-year-olds and up, and the $100,000 Everett Nevin Stakes (July 8) for California-bred 2-year-olds on the Pleasanton stakes slate.

Santa Rosa eliminated the Wine Country Stakes, a 1 1/16-mile turf stakes for 3-year-old fillies; the Wine Country Debutante, a six-furlong stakes for 2-year-old fillies; and the Jess Jackson, a five-furlong turf sprint.

Larry Swartzlander, the executive director of the California Authority of Racing Fairs, has requested $2.5 million from the California Horse Racing Board to increase purses next year and possibly bring back stakes.

“It’s a challenge,” he said.

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Tom Doutrich, the racing secretary for the California Authority of Racing Fairs, said: “We’re getting fragile. We’re just trying to hold serve and get through the year.”

Doutrich did note that there are more 2-year-olds in training for the fairs this year than last.

The fair authority continues to reward trainers who run horses at the fair meets. Those who run at least 10 horses at Pleasanton and Ferndale get $1,000, and those who run at least 10 at Sacramento and Fresno get $2,000.

Pleasanton has scheduled a beer tasting Saturday and a wine tasting July 1 in its infield. It is also resuming its $10,000 putting contest as well as its daily win-place-show promotion. Pleasanton will host Arabian stakes races on July 8.