06/15/2009 11:00PM

Stockton fair returns to opening slot


The 2009 Northern California Fairs racing season opens at a familiar location Thursday when the circuit starts its summer season at the San Joaquin County Fair in Stockton.

Stockton had been the traditional opener until last year, when a revised schedule left the fair with September racing dates. Returning to a more traditional schedule, Stockton seems ready to provide a jump-start over last year's summer-long season.

"Right now, we think it's a very positive thing that we have 20 to 25 percent more horses than a year ago," said Tom Doutrich, who serves as the racing secretary for the fair circuit. "We have new barns from Phoenix as well as Idaho."

Ninety-three runners were entered for Thursday's opening-day 10-race card, with 110 signed up on Friday.

"I'm encouraged because we're full at Golden Gate Fields, are adding temporary stalls at Pleasanton, and have good numbers at Stockton," said Chris Korby, executive director of the California Authority of Racing Fairs.

One positive for Stockton is an 8 percent purse increase for the 2009 meeting.

"I'm very excited," said Debbie Cook, the fair's new chief executive officer. "The first two days of entries we have nice fields. Raising purses will help, and the other thing I hear is that trainers are anxious to run on dirt."

Korby also believes entries will be helped early by the switch from Golden Gate Fields's synthetic Tapeta surface to traditional dirt.

"It's been a long run at Golden Gate," which has run continuously since last Sept. 17, Korby said. "There are some trainers looking for something different to run on."

Korby has mandated that the fairs upgrade their racing surfaces, and Steve Wood continues to monitor all the tracks. He just added material to the Stockton track to liven it up and hold water better as part of the maintenance program.

Cook replaces Forrest White but has worked for the fair for 21 years.

"It's not like I'm new to it," she said.

Working three years at the fair's satellite facility has given her an insight into racing. Although the fair has not made any major track improvements this year, Cook says she has concentrated on "smaller things."

For example, she has spruced up the grandstand area with flowers: "Some say it's a woman's touch, but I know from the satellite that we want to make this an attractive area for fans. We've added televisions in the food service areas and bars and brought in a new concessionaire with new menu items.

"We have to think about what is on the television cameras and what people are seeing around the United States," Cook added. "We want to take our image up a couple notches and have improved our signage above the tote board and starting gate and in the winner's circle."

The meet continues through June 28 and will run next Wednesday, even though there is no racing that day at Hollywood Park.

All the fairs will operate on five-day weeks during the summer, a decision reached even before Del Mar announced it was cutting back from six-day to five-day weeks this year.

Admission to the track and grandstand seating are free with $9 fair admission. Box seats are $60 for a block of six with fair admission included.