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Nevada racing fairs raring to run after COVID cancellations

I wrote gushingly last week about the many attributes of Del Mar and Saratoga, but this week I’m here to tell you about a whole different kind of sublime racing that you might want to experience for yourself.

The White Pine and Elko county fairs will pick up next month where they left off before last year’s COVID-19-related cancellations, with the former running from Aug. 20 to 22 at the fairgrounds in Ely and the latter racing over two weekends Aug. 27 and 28 and Sept. 3 to 6 in Elko.

Horse racing was once more common in Nevada — including a short-lived racetrack in Las Vegas — but these two meets are the last vestiges of the Silver State’s equine heritage.

I have not experienced the Elko County Fair (I hope to rectify that soon), but my visit to Ely’s races in 2018 was enjoyable. The setting was bucolic, the fans were enthusiastic and the participants were the kind of homespun horsemen that always have been the bedrock of the sport. The corn dogs and beer weren’t half bad, either.

Both meets, which present a mix of quarter horse and thoroughbred races, also are important to their communities.

“It’s the single biggest draw” of the year for Ely in terms of tourism, said Marietta Henry, chairwoman of the White Pine Racing, of the fair, which attracts visitors from other fair-racing states such as Idaho, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and South Dakota.

She said an army of about 100 volunteers helps keep the racing operation going, doing everything from manning the parimutuel windows to grooming the track and loading horses into the starting gate, all under the supervision of the Nevada Gaming Control Board.

Giovanni Puccinelli, vice chairman of the Elko County Fair Board and chairman of parimutuel operations, said the fair is “really big for the community” and that putting fannies in the stands is imperative to keep the racing operation in the black.

“We’re a small little track, not a big thing, so if we don’t have a full house, we’re not making money,” he said.

The good news is that neither operation expects to be unduly affected by Gov. Steve Sisolak’s mandate this week to again require face masks in indoor public spaces because nearly all of their facilities are outdoors.

So if you’ve never attended a live horse race in Nevada, I encourage you to make some time to do so and experience what Puccinelli describes as “just basically family fun.”

Dandy and dandier

Top-notch racing at Saratoga continues this weekend with Saturday’s $600,000 Jim Dandy Stakes (Grade 2) attracting a talented six-horse field headlined by Belmont Stakes winner Essential Quality. The Spa also has the $350,000 Alfred G. Vanderbilt Handicap (Grade 1) for 3-year-olds, headlined by fan favorite Whitmore, and the $250,000 Bowling Green on Saturday’s card. The $200,000 Amsterdam Stakes (Grade 2) gets top billing Sunday.

Del Mar has action with Breeders’ Cup implications, with the $300,000 Bing Crosby Stakes (Grade 1) on Saturday and the $300,000 Clement L. Hirsch Stakes (Grade 1) on Sunday. C Z Rocket, runner-up to Whitmore in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint in November, is the 5-2 favorite in the former, and the Hirsch has attracted the classy shipper Shedaresthedevil for trainer Brad Cox.

Mike Brunker’s horse racing column appears Fridays. He can be reached at mbrunker@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4656. Follow @mike_brunker on Twitter.

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