06/14/2011 3:11PM

Stockton admission free to start fair season in Northern California

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Northern California’s summer fair circuit gets under way Thursday when the San Joaquin Fair at Stockton begins the season with a four-day meet.

And it’s going to be hard for racing fans to pass up the offer the fair is giving them – free admission to the fair itself and the track.

“This year we need to do something different,” said the San Joaquin Fair’s interim CEO, Janet Covello. “We need to rebuild our base.

“We looked at models of other fairs. It’s somewhat of a gamble, but we want to invite people out to see what we have to offer with the whole fair experience. To come onto the grounds in the past, you could spend $50 just to get a family in. We hope it helps our handle as well as our vendors.”

One reason for the gamble is the probability that Stockton, will conduct its fair and racing at a new time in 2012 with a two-week September meeting before the Big Fresno Fair.

The fair circuit generally begins with equal parts of hope and apprehension, but racing officials seem generally optimistic.

Stockton has created a new winner’s circle that will be the largest on the circuit and will include a walking ring so that fans can be nearer horses before they go on the track.

Santa Rosa has built a new paddock, and the track’s themselves are being fine-tuned as the overseeing California Authority of Racing Fairs tries its best to ensure safety.

The summer racing season gives Northern California horsemen their only chance to run on true dirt surfaces, which the fairs racing authority has tried to use to its best advantage.

The horse population is an obvious concern at all times, and the population of the so-called emerging breeds – mules, Quarter Horses and Arabians – is down, too. But the executive director of fairs racing, Chris Korby, and the racing secretary, Tom Doutrich, have been recruiting horses, and Korby says the cancellation of the Yavapai Downs racing season could result in an additional influx of horses.

Six new stakes have been added, including a pair of $75,000 routes for 2-year-olds at Fresno that include first preference to runners who have competed on the fair circuit.

Perhaps the most interesting new stakes race will be a five-furlong turf race at Santa Rosa where owners can assign their own weights to their runners.

Both Korby and Doutrich praised the Thoroughbred Owners of California for their willingness to provide flexibility on purses and the fairs for their willingness to look at the advantages of offering condition books geared to the overall success of the fair circuit.

“We’re not trying to build up one fair over the others,” said Doutrich.

“We want to keep the quality up as best we can all summer. We want Northern California to be credible to out-of-state bettors,” said Korby.

The addition of the new stakes should help in that regard.

Raising purses on the bottom end could lead to fuller fields.

And Doutrich has received approval to create a special series for $5,000 and $10,000 claimers with higher purses for horses running 1 1/4 miles or longer.

Fairs have also accepted the concept of shorter weeks even though live racing is a major attraction.

The first three meets on the fair circuit – Stockton, Pleasanton and Sacramento –will go with four-day weeks, as will Fresno. Santa Rosa, running in conjunction with Del Mar, will have five-day weeks.