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Off to the Races

From Seabiscuit to Black Ruby, some historic hooves have pounded the track in Pleasanton


Not able to find your thrill among the concerts, the livestock, and the rides at this month’s Alameda County Fair? Try a day at the races.
The fair’s Pleasanton Racetrack is a packed jostle of fans. Many bring ice chests of food along with their folding chairs, and settle down in a shady spot in front of the grandstand. But when the horses come through the final turn and head for the wire, those folding chairs are empty. Mom, Dad, and Aunt Betty are screaming their hearts out.

It’s a wave of excitement that started rolling 146 years ago with the competitive drive of a man named Don Refugio Bernal. To prove he bred the fastest horses around, Bernal built a horse track on his 52,000-acre Mexican land grant, Rancho del Valle de San Jose. There, his stable could run against his Tri-Valley neighbors’ finest steeds.

Bernal’s building of the hippodrome was visionary. New York’s famed Saratoga track wouldn’t see action for four years, and the world’s most famous horse race, the Kentucky Derby, wouldn’t run until 1875.

Bernal’s races were like private holidays. Instead of the nearly 50,000 people expected for the fair’s 12 days of races this year, Bernal’s meets were attended by a select number of upper-crust families. They would arrive wearing their finest, riding in wagons packed with picnic baskets.

Although the races were primarily contests of pride, money did change hands. Wagering wasn’t the big deal it is today—over $6 million was staked at last year’s fair races—but that didn’t matter. The pleasure of racing was reward enough for Bernal.

Over the next 53 years, the dirt oval survived ownership changes, motorcycle races, aircraft trials, and even a 25-year ban on horse betting. The track that fairgoers know and love today really took off in 1939, when the Alameda County Fair bought the place—just in time for pari-mutuel betting’s arrival in Northern California. In pari-mutuel racing, the most common form of horse betting these days, the I’ll-bet-you-$5-my-horse-beats-yours tradition was superseded by a system in which all the wagers are pooled together, and the track holds and then distributes the winnings, after taking a percentage off the top.

The first pari-mutuel race at Pleasanton was such an event, not even a fire that destroyed the grandstand dampened the festivities. Fans just pulled up orange crates to watch the races. The 6,608-seat grandstand was rebuilt by 1941 and through the decades has been updated, now boasting televisions in the stands and a big screen in the infield to show live racing both at Pleasanton and from around the country.

Horses race only two weeks a year at Pleasanton, but the track is always open for training, carrying on more than a century of tradition. The Pleasanton track hit the big-time in 1922, when Morvich, a horse that trained there, became the first California-bred horse to win the Kentucky Derby.

But the star of stars to spend time in the Pleasanton firmament was the legendary Seabiscuit. The Depression-era superstar’s owner, Charles Howard, went so far as to build a special barn for the horse near where the current administration building stands. Old-timers remember watching Seabiscuit walk from his stall to the nearby railroad tracks when he headed to Southern California to race at Santa Anita.

History continues to be made at the track that Bernal built. Pleasanton’s “Secretariat of Mules,” Black Ruby, gained national attention a couple of years ago when she won with such regularity that tracks lost money every time she raced. Fans just wouldn’t bet enough on other mules to cover Black Ruby’s payouts.

And one of the country’s top jockeys, Russell Baze, earned his 7,000th career victory at Pleasanton on July 4, 2000. At his current pace, Baze will break Laffit Pincay Jr.’s all-time record of 9,530 victories during the 2006 fair.

If Baze crosses the wire into history, it’ll not only add to the nearly 150-year legacy of Bernal’s vision, it will also prove anew that while cotton candy and the ring toss are great, when you’re at the fair, nothing beats thundering hooves, colorful silks, and a whole lot of screaming.

To see the ponies—and the mules—run, head to the Alameda County Fair June 29 through July 10, 4501 Pleasanton Ave., Pleasanton, www.alamedacountyfair.com.

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