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The Race to Bring Horse Racing Back to the Fair 

click to enlarge Racing at the 2019 Humboldt County Fair.

Photo by Mark Larson

Racing at the 2019 Humboldt County Fair.

The Humboldt County Fair homepage says, "While there are still uncertainties as we move through 2021, plans to have a full fair including horse racing, vendors, carnival, exhibits and livestock is underway."

Come Friday, the fair is just seven weeks away with plenty of loose ends to be tied. At least now there are some funds, as the Humboldt County Supervisors approved $200,000 in budget allocations and the fair board can sign contracts for vendors and performers. A local carnival and full fair are in the air for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began. The livestock auction will be live again the first Sunday of the fair, Aug. 22.

Humboldt County Fair Board President Andy Titus, along with recent new board members Greg Gomes and Jack Rice, are bringing fresh energy for changes and positive long-term growth. But sometimes new ideas can be met with a lingering feeling of resentment and reluctance by more "seasoned" board members and this board of 13 members is operating without a fair director.

Eight years ago, when the fair had a large reserve, the board didn't renew then fair manager Stuart Titus's contract, which resulted in the organization settling a wrongful termination suit for $150,000 ("Tituses Get $150K in Fair Board Settlement," Jan. 9, 2016). Seven years later, it let go his replacement Richard Conway amid the COVID-19 pandemic with no money in reserves. During the fair's hiatus, the board hasn't hired a new manager.

The board did hire two people, Katherine Ziemer and Mary Ann Renner from the Humboldt County Agriculture Board, to help 15 hours a week. With such a short time to go, they've found many tasks have been neglected. Also, with no marketing budget, publicity and sponsorships have been absent and there was much to catch up on.

Among the ideas floated around are admission price increases, pricier racing blanket sponsorships and higher prices for box seats. Cutting costs by hiring local entertainment instead of out-of town spectacles is another option.

If admission is raised, it had better not be a half-ass fair. It is, in fact, literally a no ass fair, as the America Mule Racing Association is boycotting the summer fairs because the purses are too small in comparison to the thoroughbreds. The same complaint is going around the Arabian horse community.

The bottom line is horse racing is what makes the fair tick financially now and in the future. The races in Humboldt County have been close to extinction the last few years and, with the loss of racing last summer, it is a long road back. At one time, the races would fill up with Appaloosas, Quarter Horses, and mixed breed races to supplement the Thoroughbreds to create a full card of races. Then came the mules but no longer and doubtful now with the Arabians.

New board member Greg Gomes has started an online fundraising page, hoping to earmark some $10,000 for horsemen incentives.

Bringing back Quarter Horses is another possible solution. However, the California Association of Racing Fairs (CARF) has decided the Quarter Horses can only run 110 yards on our stretch. This is almost unheard of for mule or quarter horse racing. Few Quarter Horses run in Northern California and the Los Alamitos trainers may not ship here to lose a purse on a quick stumble from the gate.

The Sonoma County Fair in Santa Rosa will hold its Wine Country Racing at Golden Gate Fields, farther south. Trainers who used to take their horses to Humboldt County from Santa Rosa are less likely to do so now.

As for horses coming south from Oregon, they may be deterred by lingering bad blood. In 2018, many trainers brought horses from Oregon only to find the workman's compensation insurance paperwork not filed properly (there's some dispute over whose fault that is). The horses could not run, resulting in lost revenue on both sides.

Some members of the board have been courting trainers from both Oregon and Pleasanton, trying to put the past behind them. Incentives such as $250 gas cards, free shavings, barbecues, housing and the California Racing Fairs incentives that pay out-of-state trainers and owners to race here may be working. Some Oregon horses are signed on and some trainers from down south are coming for the first time.

Grants Pass Downs is pulling off a successful meet but when racing ends there, the fear is that many trainers will head to Emerald Downs in Washington or the newly reopened Arizona Downs in Prescott, Arizona, where they can bunk down for months of races. There's worry in Grants Pass that if the horses go to Arizona, they might not come back to Oregon for the fall meet.

The last horse race held at Ferndale was a fiasco. The starter pulled the button before the horses were ready for the final race, the Humboldt County Marathon, a Ferndale treasure. People waited in lines for hours to get a few dollars back from the waived race.

Until we see the horses here and entering races, and patrons coming through the gates, we just do not know. It is now or never. The fair board and supporters of the fair are doing their best to court the racing people to come here. The odds are mixed and the stakes are high, as we could see the end of a historic tradition.

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Rod Kausen

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