They’re Off

Cal Expo harness races run to unknown future

By R.E. Graswich
December 2023

Time to bet $50 on a harness horse named Roscoe P Coletrain. He’s no sure thing. Just a beautiful name.

I rarely bet horses on name alone, and almost never risk $50. I’m a $20 bettor, long shots. Anything over $20 depresses me when luck fails. Roscoe P Coletrain inspires dumb certainty.

The drive to Cal Expo is a reminder of how tough it is to make an old-fashioned, in-person wager on a harness horse. Trouble starts with finding the racetrack. I’ve watched races at Cal Expo for almost 50 years, navigated the parking lot hundreds of times.

But tonight, I imagine someone visiting the track for the first time. I wonder if there’s a conspiracy to hide the racecourse and discourage attendance, especially for newcomers who don’t know their way around the State Fairgrounds.

The track is impossible to miss with a big grandstand and stadium lights. But vastness doesn’t mean easy access.

Come off the freeway at Expo Boulevard. Head east to the last Cal Expo entrance, the final driveway before the racetrack. Now things get tricky.

Multiple traffic lanes greet the guest. During the State Fair, attendants work the lanes and collect parking fees. For harness racing, there’s no traffic, attendants or fees.

Onward toward a guard shack that oversees a side entry to the fairgrounds. No guard. The gate hangs open. A few dozen cars are parked inside, up a slight hill near the grandstand. Here’s the best part about harness racing: free VIP parking for everyone.

From the VIP lot, it’s a short walk to the grandstand. Inside the door, an empty ticket desk. Admission is free tonight. Around the corner, a few dozen betting machines and empty teller windows. Parimutuel clerks once stood there, punching betting tickets and cashing winners.

Cal Expo still employs several human parimutuel clerks, relics from yesteryear whose ancestors worked mutuel windows at the Stockton Boulevard fairgrounds. Certain clerks were believed to generate luck.

In the old days, mutuel clerks followed the horses. They worked Bay Meadows and Golden Gate Fields in fall, spring and winter. The Fair Circuit in summer.

Vagabond lifestyles mostly ended when satellite betting centers opened year round in California. Serve-yourself betting machines took over. Gamblers tapped keypads and printed their own mutuel tickets.

This might be the last season for harness racing at Cal Expo. The closure of Golden Gate Fields in mid-2024 means thoroughbreds will need other tracks to run on. Pleasanton will probably get most dates, but Cal Expo will no doubt expand its thoroughbred calendar.

More racing dates for Cal Expo is good news. But here’s the catch. If those new dates conflict with harness racing, harness loses.

After a half-century as a Sacramento sporting tradition, harness racing at Cal Expo might disappear in 2024, thanks to an expanded thoroughbred calendar.

Harness horses are poor stepchildren to thoroughbreds in California. It’s been true since the 1930s.

The state racing board allocates schedules for all breeds. Trouble is, thoroughbreds and harness horses can’t share the same track. The hardpack surface used by sulkies is unsafe for sprinters.

The racing board knows about Sacramento’s harness tradition. But a dwindling fan base prefers thoroughbreds. And thoroughbred owners and trainers have more political juice than the harness community.

It’s possible to build a calendar that protects Cal Expo’s November–April harness meet. Spread Golden Gate Fields’ thoroughbred dates among Pleasanton, Santa Rosa, Sacramento, Fresno and Ferndale. Leave harness alone.

The racing board, never in a hurry to make a bet, should decide next spring.

Time to get that $50 down on Roscoe P Coletrain. “Good luck,” the clerk says.

I could have done all this without leaving home, via smart phone. Gambling has become so ubiquitous that people can bet hundreds of races through apps without falling out of bed.

But I love the track, the horses, people, atmosphere, even Roscoe P Coletrain, the horse with the beautiful name, who finishes last.

Cal Expo harness racing runs Friday and Sunday nights November through April at the State Fairgrounds.

R.E. Graswich can be reached at Follow us on Facebook, X and Instagram: @insidesacramento.

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