The Pleasanton Racetrack has been an integral part of the annual Alameda County Fair since its beginning. Attendees of the fair might be surprised to discover the historic importance of the racetrack, which far predates the first modern Alameda County Fair held in 1912. The fair owes its existence in part to the racetrack's owner at the time, a man who lobbied the community to hold a fair on his property. Built in the 1850s, the racetrack has played a vital economic role over its long history.
By many accounts, the racetrack dates back to 1858, when it was constructed by Augustin Bernal, the son of the Spanish Don. The track is older than the famous Saratoga racetrack in upper New York. According to the book, Pleasanton, California: A Brief History, written by Ken MacLennan for Pleasanton's Museum on Main, horse breeding and training contributed a great deal of prestige to the area. Some of that prestige could be seen in newspaper articles about Pleasanton during that era.
An April 29, 1895 article called "Fairest Pleasanton, One of the Thriving Towns of Livermore Valley," for example, sung the praises of Pleasanton, its horses, and its racetrack. "The raising of fine stock is almost a craze in this Livermore Valley country," wrote a reporter for the San Francisco Call newspaper. "And why shouldn't it be, when Pleasanton stock has lowered the world's record? No one seems to drive slow horses in this royal domain of horsedom. All the ranch boys go spinning along the smooth highways. A number of fine stock farms are here, where famous thoroughbred sires and dams see their sons and daughters train and go forth to win on all the great race courses of the country."
As MacLennan notes in his book, local "race meets encompassed both saddle and harness racing; by the end of the century, harness racing would come to predominate. The track's site seems to have been wisely chosen, for experts regarded the ground as particularly suitable for horses; it also enjoyed the Valley's advantages in weather and easy access to high-quality local hay."
The Heathcote/MacKenzie House, near the Alameda Fairgrounds, is a local landmark in the National Register of Historic Places and intimately connected to the Pleasanton racetrack and its history. For more than 75 years, the house was "the center of the historical horse racing activities in the Livermore-Amador Valley," according to the National Register. "It is the sole remaining structure from the days of the privately-owned and later public racing business that has had an economic impact on this area since the mid-1800s."
The house was built about 1905 as a home for racetrack owner Rodney G. MacKenzie, a wealthy Canadian who entertained other wealthy Canadian harness racers who wintered their horses at the racetrack's stables. "The activities of the Canadian harness racers boosted the economy of Pleasanton between 1895 to 1912," notes the National Register. "The Canadians often stayed at a local hotel, bought locally grown red oat hay and grain, and employed many men. The economic impact of MacKenzie and other Canadians on the then small town of Pleasanton was substantial."
The fortunes of the racetrack waxed and waned over the years, like that of the racing industry itself. They took off again in 1930 when parimutuel wagering started in Pleasanton, a mere six years after it was legalized by the State of California. In 1932, the Pleasanton racetrack set a national record for average daily handle during its nine-day meet. Average daily handle is the term the racing industry uses for the amount of money a track takes in for bets from all sources except off-shore wagers. During this period, an increasing number of outside owners sent their horses to winter in Pleasanton, according to MacLennan.
During World War II, the Pleasanton racetrack closed for three years. After the war and later, a variety of improvements were made to the track. In 1963 a modern grandstand replaced an old wooden grandstand. In 1975 an inner racecourse was replaced by a nine-hole golf course, and in 1991, an off-track simulcast horse race betting facility opened. Today the off-track betting facility is open year around, while live horse races are held each year during the Alameda County Fair, which opened last week and runs on Wednesdays through Sundays between June 14 and July 7, 2019.
This year the live thoroughbred and quarter horse races are being held Thursdays through Sundays at 1:45 PM during the fair, which attendees can watch for no additional charge. A total of $1.7 million in prize money is being offered during races, including $50,000 for Oak Tree Sprint Stakes on July 4 and $100,000 for Everett Nevin Stakes on July 6. Newcomers who want to explore betting on races may want to attend the free Handicapping Seminar held every day at noon during the fair.
The racetrack will host a variety of contests during the fair this year, including Hippity Hoppity bouncing ball races for children between the ages of 7 and 10 (requires closed-toe shoes), a hat contest, and, on June 29, a Northern California Derby Dog Dash. The Dash is a popular small dog race. The furry contestants must cover approximately 50 yards and do it quickly to win.
The one-mile Pleasanton racetrack is the oldest surviving racetrack in America. The many men who first developed and later owned the racetrack might be surprised by many of the changes made since the racetrack came into being. But they would not be surprised by the many horse enthusiasts and racing fans who continue to flock to the racetrack so many years later.
For more information about the Pleasanton Racetrack at the Alameda County Fair, please visit www.annual.alamedacountyfair.com/racing-info-events-contests.
For more information about the Alameda County Fair, please visit www.alamedacountyfair.com.
For more information about the Museum on Main in Pleasanton, please visit www.museumonmain.org.