With horses racing in fall, SJ Fair shrinks to 5 days

Fans of the San Joaquin Fair will have to pack their plans into half the time next summer.

Fair officials decided to cut the fair to five days in an effort to curb costs and boost enthusiasm. Previous fairs had been 10 or 11 days.

The move follows an attendance drop and a decision late last month by the California Horse Racing Board to schedule Stockton's races for nine days in September rather than during the fair's traditional run in early summer.

To keep the number of fair days the same, the fair would have had to budget for extra days or move to September after school had started, neither of which appeared feasible, said Forrest White, the fair's chief executive officer.

Fair officials decided to split the event; the fair will run June 18-22, with horse racing on nine days from Sept. 3 to Sept. 14. There are days in that span when there won't be racing.

Fair officials hope the change will re-spark attendance. It traditionally hovered around 190,000 visitors per year, but fell to 160,000 during the heat wave in 2006 and didn't recover this summer.

"For months, the (fair) board had been looking at how can we make things special and how can we re-gather the excitement, and you are not going to be able to do all 11 days (of attendance) in five days, but you can do a lot better," White said. "What happens is, people say, 'Well, we'll go next week,' and then next week rolls around and something else comes up."

New venues, including the Bob Hope Theater and the 8,000-seat Stockton Arena, have competed with the fair, he said.

"When you look at all of these things, it takes entertainment dollars," he said. "So when you start looking at that little by little, that has an effect. And like the new Gallo Center (in Modesto), the more activities that come there, the more people will go to them."

Although the Gallo Center will compete for leisure dollars, it offers a different experience from the free outdoor concerts at the Stanislaus County Fair, said fair spokeswoman Pennie Rorex.

"You have a formal downtown theater versus an outdoor concert or amphitheater," Rorex said. "And I think there are certain people for whom one option is more suitable for their entertainment tastes, and then there are entertainment lovers who like to experience both types."

She said the two venues may even feed each other.

The 10-day Stanislaus County Fair has enjoyed constant figures of about 219,000 people each of the past three years, and the fair's board is not discussing dropping days, Rorex said. The fair is set for July 25 to Aug. 3.

With the change in San Joaquin County, more money will go into entertainment acts, and since the horse racing won't coincide with the fair, the race track could be used for motor events or a rodeo, White said.

The fair is looking at third parties that might want to put on events such as a hot rod show.

Bee staff writer Inga Miller can be reached at imiller@modbee.com or 599-8760.