06/13/2010 11:00PM

Shorter stint than usual at Stockton

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Northern California racing returns to its roots Wednesday when the San Joaquin County Fair opens the racing season in Stockton with a revised schedule.

Date switches have taken place, and racing at the Solano County Fair in Vallejo, once referred to the Biggest Little Fair in California, will not be offered.

Racing will run one week at Stockton; three weeks at the Alameda County Fair in Pleasanton; two weeks at the State Fair in Sacramento in mid-July instead of the end of August through Labor Day; three weeks at the Sonoma County Fair in Santa Rosa; two weeks at the Humboldt County Fair in Ferndale, including one week as Northern California's sole live racing venue; and two weeks in Fresno in October.

Chris Korby, executive director of the California Authority of Racing Fairs, says Northern California remains in a "transition period" that began when Bay Meadows closed down in 2008.

"It will be a few more years till the situation stabilizes," he predicts.

With legitimate questions about Golden Gate Fields' future, Korby said he believes more firmly than ever that fairs will play a more important role in Northern California.

"I think we've made significant steps for consistency through the whole circuit," he said. "We're doing our best to offer as good and as balanced a program as we can."

Last year, CARF concentrated on the stakes program, offering a guaranteed $1,000 to every stakes runner, except in 2-year-old races.

Economics have forced a revision this year with fewer stakes being offered, but new $40,000 allowance races offered to allow top runners a place to run despite the reduction in stakes.

Fairs racing secretary Tom Doutrich said the five $40,000 races allowed the fairs to bump up purses on the bottom levels a bit and provide spots for better horses to run.

"They will be allowance races, not optional claimers," he said.

The extended meets at Pleasanton and Santa Rosa could lead to additional racing during the year to take some of stress off Golden Gate, which will run the final week of August and the month of September before the two weeks at Fresno and then from mid-October to mid-June.

Korby is also interested to see the response to the new State Fair dates.

"We'll watch that carefully," he said. "In the past, schools opened following Labor Day. Now many schools open in mid-August so mid-summer dates are more attractive."

CARF continues working with each of its fairs to have tracks in good condition for racing.

"One blessing we have in Northern California is we have a number of good venues," said Korby, but he concedes the number can be difficult to provide proper upkeep for the short meets at each venue.

Although they heavily recruit horsemen in other states, particularly Arizona, and run races with the so-called emerging breeds -- mules, Arabians, and Quarter Horses -- the fairs face the same problems the major tracks in both halves of the state face.

"We're down 20 percent in our horse population from last year," said Doutrich of both the Thoroughbred and non-Thoroughbred population.

Stockton will run only seven races on Thursday, including one mule and one Arabian race. Doutrich attracted 58 runners for Wednesday's eight-race opening day card but only 47 on Thursday.

But Doutrich is gearing racing to big weekend cards, and he hopes races such as Saturday's $40,000 allowance, called the Pink Ribbon to highlight breast cancer awareness, and a Sunday allowance race called the Sweepida will keep traditions of Stockton's stakes program alive.

Debbie Cook, San Joaquin County Fair CEO, said despite the cutback from two weeks of racing to only one week, "We're going to make it the best week we can. We want to make it a good week."

She says she is realistic about racing at Stockton and realizes it isn't Pleasanton or Santa Rosa, but she said, "We'd like to stay in racing."

There have been additional cosmetic changes to make the track more appealing to simulcast bettors as well as those at the track, and she said the track crew and California Horse Racing Board have been doing detailed track inspections.

"It looks good. We're ready to run," she said.

Off-track events at Pleasanton

Doutrich said Pleasanton would host two special events on Mondays during its three-week run.

On July 5, the track and CARF will hold an awards dinner to thank and honor horsemen. A July 12 golf tournament is also scheduled to benefit programs for retired horses.