Alameda County Fair opens for business on Wednesday
By Lou Fancher
Racing is everything at this year's Alameda County Fair.
Whether it's high-stakes horse racing, visitors in pursuit of cheese-stuffed pickles, or people rushing for one of the 500 new-for-2016 Premium Reserved seats available for the Big O Tires Concert Series, the need for speed is everywhere.
Fueling the fervor of horse owners, trainers, riders and fans of their sport, the California Horse Racing Board's recent transfer of six fall racing days from Stockton to the Alameda County fairgrounds has folks like Pleasanton native Allen Aldrich pumped.
"I've owned horses for 35 years. Living two blocks from the fairground race tracks, I just became a fan. I've owned more than 100 horses, I'd guess," says Aldrich.
His Aldrich Properties office is located a mere 100 yards from the fairground's entry gates, making it easy to visit the 12 horses he owns and stables at the facility. "I watch them train. I'm a hands-on owner: clean the stalls, walk them, travel with my horses to all the fairs."
Aldrich doesn't ride, after falling off during two, long-ago attempts. But his love of horses remains undiminished.
Aldrich says the addition to the horse racing schedule of Fall Week (actually two 3-day weekends, Sept. 23-25 and Sept. 30-Oct. 2) will mean his horses won't have to be shipped to Golden Gate Fields in Albany or to Stockton and will benefit from running on the fairground's dirt track.
"Golden Gate has a synthetic track and dirt has less injuries. Stockton is a haul," he says.
Still, he finds it sad that other race tracks are closing or reducing their schedules due to lost revenues. Aldrich says that different winnings-distribution structures between the San Joaquin and Alameda county fairgrounds and fewer horses racing (approximately 1,100 horses compete at Golden Gate; Pleasanton stables about 400) allows the Pleasanton track to offer higher purses and therefore, is more sustainable.
Angel Moore, the fair's marketing and communications manager, says horse racing box seat holders are calling to find out how they can be involved and a general uptick in interest around Fall Race week is noticeable.
"Our community has been asking for more racing for some time. When the board decided Stockton was no longer a good space because they weren't getting enough horses to race, we stepped up to say we wanted it. We're not just setting up a race: we're planning events," she said. A craft beer festival, family fun days, a Latino Day, art show, Fall Trot giveaway and $7,000 in race winning money are part of the admission-free event.
Meanwhile, summer fair visitors are sprinting to capture reserved music concert seating that replaces the early-entry program of the last three years. "People told us they didn't want to wait in line," says Moore.
Without major advertising, reserve seats for eight of the 17 amphitheater concerts were sold out as of late May. "Tower of Power sold out in three days," says Moore. "They really pack the house."
Other new features include: the Chinese Acrobats of Hebei, contemporary acrobatic artists who perform three high-voltage shows daily throughout the fair; Father's Day, when dads get in free until noon and a "My Dad is Awesome" video contest; sunflower seed spitting competitions and more.
On the culinary front, there's the winner of the food smackdown: the Elvis Burger, a half-pound hamburger smothered in peanut butter and jelly and topped with a fried egg. For a healthy followup, there's deep-fried nachos, spaghetti ice cream or caramel-filled funnel cakes.
Visitors' favorites that are returning include the always-astounding youth competitions and the Oakland Symphony performing in perfect synchronization with overhead fireworks on July 4.
"Some people had never seen a live symphony," says Moore, about the symphony's debut appearance in 2015. "The feedback was amazing."