The Early Years (1800’s – early 1900’s)
For more than one hundred years, horse racing has held center stage at the Fair and continues to be a main attraction. The first Fresno Fair opened in 1883, featuring a five-day horse race meet, some simple produce displays and a livestock exhibit. Early horse racing pitted horses of farm owners from throughout the Valley against one another; their proud owners would wager with neighbors and friends at the predominately agricultural show each fall. Modest as it was, it was a huge success. Only five years later, a grandstand would be added to the fairgrounds as it quickly grew in those early years.
Set Backs & Improvements
For the Fair’s first 25 years, betting on horses was a legal and popular pastime among spectators. The betting style of 1884 allowed for races to be run in “heats” instead of single races like today. Then in 1909, pari-mutuel betting was abolished, temporarily halting the races.
In the early 1900s, the newly invented automobile shared race billing with horses. Around 1904, world famous driver Barney Oldfield awed automobile enthusiasts in his Peerless Green Dragon racing machine. Oldfield was the first man to drive a car at 60 mph on an oval.
By 1910, the popularity of automobile racing outgrew horse racing and coupled by the legislative ban on pari-mutuel betting in 1909, horse racing was temporarily halted. To provide the Fair venue with the latest in racing facilities, a $25,000 contract was inked with local sports hero Jack Prince of Prince Speedways Company in June 1920. He agreed to build a wooden track to accommodate motorcycle and auto racing in time for the 200 mile San Joaquin Valley Classic, scheduled for October 2, 1920.
Pari-mutuel betting was legalized 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.” This created an opportunity for horse racing to return, something that Fair Manager Tom Dodge did in 1935.
Dodge was hired as the Fair’s full-time manager in 1934 and held that position until 1967. As manager, he transformed the fair from a four to an eleven day event, increasing 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. To support the increasing popularity of horse racing, in 1938, a reinforced concrete grandstand with 4,000 seats and a restaurant was built to replace the original Victorian-style turreted wood grandstand at the track.
Unfortunately, the entire Fair was shut down shortly thereafter for army use during World War II. After extensive repairs, the Fair reopened again in 1948 and horse racing was stronger than ever!
Creating a Strong Horse Racing Culture
Jumping forward to the 1980’s, the Fair hosted many big names on the horse racing circuit! 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 same year, The Big Fresno Fair introduced TIM 300, a computerized cash/sell system that allowed fans to make and cash bets at the same window, making the process faster and more efficient, leading to the creation of modern day satellite wagering.
Live horse racing has always been a big part of The Big Fresno Fair, known as one of the busiest tracks in the State. To support that strong racing culture, the Fair has continued to invest in its racing facilities with the construction of the paddock, remodeled tote board, grass added to the Infield and trees along the perimeter. The enhanced the look of the track has a direct impact on wagering numbers, yielding 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!
The improvements continued. In 2010, with support of the Friends of the Big Fresno Fair non-profit foundation, 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! Additionally, a replica of the 1890 grandstand complete with a life-size horse and jockey were added to the Infield parking entrance off of Kings Canyon – an ode to the historic grandstand.
Live horse racing continues to be a BIG tradition at the Fair and is something you need to experience first-hand! Click here for details on this year’s live race meet.