Horse racing has always been a rich part of the Fair’s history and continues to be one of the biggest draws for Fair patrons today. On December 26, 1882, a group of prominent businessmen, ranchers and growers formed the Fresno Fair Grounds Association with a common interest in providing the local community with a fair to enjoy together. Dr. Lewis Leach was named president of the organization, followed by T. M. Hughes, Fred A. Woodworth, M.G. Donahoo and A.B. Butler as Association Directors. The incorporation papers stated the purpose of the organization as “the holding of fairs for exhibition, sale of livestock, family products, improved breeding of farm animals and the scheduling of horse races.”
Two years later, the first Fresno Fair was held October 7 – 11 and consisted mainly of horse racing, livestock and small produce exhibits. During the first Fresno Fair, betting on horses was legal and took place at the horse races among spectators. The betting style of 1884 allowed for races to be run in “heats” instead of single races like we have today. Although admission was free the first day of the Fair, the organization began charging admission the last four days despite the drop in attendance. In order to gain back the support from Valley residents, Fair officials opened the grounds on that Sunday and provided families with horse-drawn carriage rides for a $0.50 fee. They boasted that families could enjoy “the luxury of a drive around the fine track” with this new offer. Even with a low profit margin from the five-day Fair, it was declared a success.
Pari-mutuel betting in horse racing was abolished in 1909 which halted races at the Fair the following year. When local horse racing returned in 1911, the Fresno Fair Association announced they would be giving away $7,000 in purses for that year’s Harness Races as a way to welcome horse racing back to the Fairgrounds. Pari-mutuel betting officially made its return in 1933 after an initiative was circulated and approved by a 2-1 margin. The petition stated the amendment to pass for “the encouragement of agriculture and the breeding of horses in this State…”
As horse racing became more popular at the Fairgrounds, the Fair decided to debut their Horse Pulling Contest in September of 1924. Horses from around the Valley competed against each other to see who could pull the heaviest object down the track with the winning horse in each category receiving a prize of $35. The event was a success and was brought back to the Fair the following year in 1925. Stakes were higher during the 2nd Annual Pulling Contest with the introduction of an elimination round and the opportunity for winning horses to take home prizes totaling $100.
Tom Dodge was hired as the Fair’s full-time manager in 1934 and held the position for 32 years until 1967. During his time as manager, he helped transform the four-day event to an 11-day event and increased the attendance from 49,200 people to more than 127,000 Fairgoers. His involvement was instrumental to the creation of the 21st District Agricultural Association which is today’s Big Fresno Fair. Dodge also oversaw the first official horse racing meet at the Fresno Fair and helped make it the Valley event it is today.
In February of 1976, the Chamber of Commerce polled its membership to determine if horse racing should be allowed on grounds during non-Fair times throughout the year. Supporters of the bill proposed there be an additional 21 days of Spring racing, as well as the 11 days of Fair racing in the Fall. Many local residents were against the addition of more racing days because of extensive betting during the 1975 Fair and large losses seen among betters. Despite its lack of support, the bill was passed by the Senate Finance Committee and sent to the Senate Floor. On March 1, 1980, Cal-Fax Racing Association was granted the license to add a 21-day meet to the Fairgrounds. Because of this, the Fresno Fairgrounds were able to apply the $3,500 guaranteed daily minimum toward paying off the $4.2 million debt from construction to the Grandstand.
Jumping forward to the 1980’s, the Fair hosted many big names in horse racing culture. In October of 1984, Willie Shoemaker, a top winning jockey and Horse Racing Hall of Fame inductee, raced at the Fresno Fair for thousands of Valley residents to enjoy. During that same Fair, Laffitt Pincay, Jr., winner of the 1984 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes, was the featured jockey at the Fair’s Centennial racing meet. That year also brought the Grandstand an easier, more efficient way of betting with the introduction of the computerized cash/sell system. This machine known as the TIM 300 allowed racing fans to make and cash their bets at the same window, while making it more fun as well!
Live Horse Racing has now withstood 134 years of changes in history at The Big Fresno Fair - making it known as one of the busiest race tracks in the State. In 2007, The Big Fresno Fair hosted its first ever mule match race and was the only California Racing Fair to be up in handle. In 2008, track improvements such as the paddock, remodeled tote board, addition of more than 6,100 trees and lush grass in the Infield, enhanced the look of the track which yielded an unprecedented 44% increase in out-of-state satellite wagering. That same year large horse numbers provided nearly full race cards for the 130 races taking place. In 2010, with support of Friends of the Big Fresno Fair, the Luxury Deck was added to the Brian I. Tatarian Grandstand providing a bird’s eye view of both the finish line and the paddock! Live Horse Racing continues to be a BIG tradition at the Fair and it's something you need to experience first-hand! The Big Fresno Fair is home to not only one of the best live horse racing facilities in the State, but is also the only place you can find live horse racing excitement here in the Valley!