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For a taste of real California, check out San Joaquin County Fair

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Posted: Friday, June 8, 2007 10:00 pm | Updated: 11:18 am, Thu Jul 22, 2010.

The San Joaquin County Fair, one of Northern California's premier events since it first began in 1860, opens on June 14 and goes through June 24.

Every summer, when out-of-state friends come to visit me in June, I take them to the San Joaquin County Fair. I want them to see what California is really about.

Most Easterners, when they think of California, imagine Hollywood and San Francisco. Little do they know that those two cities have nothing to do with the real California. A day at the fair proves my point without me having to say a word.

Among the programs that most impress my tinhorn friends are the ones aimed at educating young prospective farmers.

The Ag Education program offers hands-on learning about the water cycle, hydroponics and worm composting. Trust me, once you get into composting, you'll never look at your garbage the same way.

For the Future Farmers of America - whose motto is "Learning to Do, Doing to Learn, Earning to Live, Living to Serve" - and 4-H members, the fair hosts a Junior Livestock Auction where students present their projects that demonstrate scientific agricultural practices and sound business management. The objective is to obtain fair market prices for their end product. The challenge for today's farmers, as the students learn, is to make a profit.

The fair, which normally draws about 200,000 people, always puts on a great event with something for everyone.

Every night, free concerts featuring name entertainers are presented on the main stage. Among the most notable this year are Frankie Valli, whose career with the Four Seasons is relived in the Broadway smash hit "Jersey Boys," and the classic rock 'n' roll band REO Speedwagon.

Despite the festive atmosphere that always surrounds the fair, this year it faces a serious challenge. Horse racing, which celebrates it Diamond Jubilee in Stockton in 2007 and is one of the fair's biggest draws and its greatest source of income, is under pressure from the California Horse Racing Board and the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association to up its attendance or lose racing altogether.

Typically, fair patrons wager between $300,000 and $500,000 over the 10-day period. That generates about $1 million of the fair's $4.5 million budget.

But the racing board is looking for more, although it has not specified how much more. One of the reasons that racing has not done as well in the past as hoped for, said fair director Mitch Slater, is because of overlapping - that is, more than one California venue at a time offering racing.

This year, for the first time since 1988, races at the fair will not compete with Bay Meadows or Golden Gate. And Slater thinks this gives the Fair a good shot at getting the increased attendance that the Racing Board insists upon.

As an added attraction, the fair is trying to lure the all-time record-winning jockey Russell Baze to Stockton as a further inducement to racing fans.

Should the fair not measure up to the racing board's expectations, the consequences could be grim. If the fair loses racing, the track might have to be sold or leased. And the fair might have to relocate and/or change its dates. All of this will be the subject of a discussion at a July board of director's retreat.

As someone who has regularly attended the fair since I moved to Lodi in 1986 and who has participated in the "Foods and Confections" exhibits - with, I will add immodestly, a good deal of success - I would hate to see any wholesale changes in the fair as we have come to know and love it.

Get out and support the San Joaquin County Fair. Whether or not you know anything about horses, stop in to watch a few races.

What could be better than sitting in the fresh air and watching the world's most magnificent animals speed around the track?

Joe Guzzardi is an instructor at the Lincoln Technical Academy. In 2006, Guzzardi won five blue ribbons in the baking category at the San Joaquin County Fair. E-mail him at guzzjoe@yahoo.com

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