07/11/2004 11:00PM

Solano opens what may be its last meeting

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VALLEJO, Calif. - When racing first started at the Solano County Fair in 1950, it marked the beginning of the fair racing season, and the fair itself was called the "Biggest Little Fair in the World."

Times have changed, and the 2004 season, which begins Wednesday, could mark the end of racing at the seven-furlong track.

Attendance is poor, falling 23 percent last year. Even though the on-track handle was up, the fair's overall handle of $25 million was well below the handle at both the Pleasanton and Santa Rosa fairs, whose dates sandwich the Solano dates.

The future of the track has been debated in recent years, as Solano County and the fair board have tried to assess how best to use the property. One possibility is to run the Solano dates at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa.

New Solano Fair general manager, Joe Barkett has spoken with the Sonoma County Fair and envisions a cooperative effort by the fairs to coordinate and run a four-week meeting at Santa Rosa, with the Solano Fair running the first two weeks of the meet.

Sonoma general manager Jim Moore, who will retire after this year's fair, is discussing the possibility of additional racing dates with his board. One reason the Sonoma County Fair is constructing a turf course is a possible extension of its meet.

"The Sonoma County Fair runs the two weeks after we do," said Barkett. "I think it might be viable to conduct a four-week meet, especially with the addition of a turf course next year.

"We believe a Wine Country race meet involving Napa, Sonoma, and Solano counties makes sense. The North Bay area is one people come to think of as a place to go with golf courses, wineries, the coast, and Russian River."

Barkett says he thinks the four-week meet would prove popular with both horsemen and fans. The two-week Santa Rosa meet has the highest attendance of any fair.

Plans are being made to redevelop the Solano fairgrounds area - 150 acres located next to Interstate 80 and California Highway 37 and across from a major amusement park. There seems to be little support to maintain the 60 acres needed for a racetrack and barn area that are used only two weeks a year.

Although live racing may not be in the future for the Solano County Fair, it has conducted a three-year program of barn and track improvements.

"We have worked to ensure the best quality of surface and conditions for the horses," Barkett said. "Since we have opened the barn area this year, we have had a lot of compliments about the racing surface."

The meet has three stakes races, all for fillies or mares: the $50,000 Vacaville Handicap at six furlongs on July 17; the $40,000-added Fairfield Stakes for 3-year-old fillies on July 24; and $50,000-added Solano County Juvenile Filly Stakes for 2-year-old Cal-bred fillies July 25.

There will be free parking and admission the first two days of the fair, Wednesday and Thursday, as well as closing day, July 26. Coupons for discounted parking from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on the other race days were printed in the Alameda County Fair programs.

Free key chains will be given away Saturday, and a win-place-show drawing will be held daily.