Cowboy culture takes the reins on fair's opening day

With trick-roping, pony rides and card games in the new Painted Pony Saloon, San Diego County Fair's Western-themed 2017 season got under way Friday afternoon.

By the time the gates opened at 4 p.m., nearly 500 people were queued up, with Margaret Austin first in line. The Escondido retiree arrived by bus at 8:30 a.m. so she could carry on her annual tradition of being first through the gates.

"With a name like Austin in grade school, I always hated being first, but at the fair, I love it," she said.

Known by fair staff as the "pig lady" for her soothing ways with the racing piglets, the pink-attired Austin said she always buys a season pass and comes every day of the run, mostly to browse the art and woodworking exhibits, see the animals and garden show, and to place a few bets at the Surfside Race Place.

Inside the gates, the fairgrounds has been transformed for the "Where the West is Fun" theme. The entry walkway resembles an Old West town with retro mercantile storefronts lining both sides. The garden show is decorated with horse statues, saddles and an old jail. And the "Home on the Range" main exhibit features cowboy, Indian and gold rush educational displays, stuffed buffalo toys for sale and a dress-up-as-a-sheriff antique photo booth.

As part of the Western celebration, the fair sponsored a massive cattle drive on the streets of downtown San Diego on Saturday morning (June 3). Forty-five riders on horseback and nine herding dogs drove 200 head of cattle down Harbor Drive past the San Diego Convention Center and through the Gaslamp Quarter from 7:30-8:30 a.m.

Horses of another kind were a big draw for Valerie and James Norfolk of El Cajon. As soon as they entered the fair gates, they headed for the pony rides booth with their kids, Aubree, 3, and Brody, 2. Then they paid $1 each to gaze at Hercules, a massive, 3,000-pound Belgian draft horse in a side show-style tent nearby.

"Look at him Daddy, he's huge," Aubree said.

Tanya Geiger of Fallbrook has been selling tickets at the Hercules booth for six years. The horse travels the fair circuit with a 3,400-pound steer and 1,100-pound alligator from their home farm in Florida. She said it never gets old seeing the amazed looks on people's faces when they enter the side show tent to see Hercules, who consumes a bale of hay, 10 pounds of grain and 30 gallons of water a day.

Nearby in a livestock barn, Mark Johnson of El Cajon was answering questions about the 22 exotic English Trumpeters he's exhibiting in the pigeon show, which runs through Sunday. The Redlands native started collecting wild pigeons at age 7 when he and his grandfather would capture birds at the town railyard for their backyard aviary.

A decade ago, as many as 800 pigeons would be exhibited at the fair, but this year there are only 160 birds and most of them belong to a single collector in Orange County. Birds need a lot of space, so many of the mostly male pigeon collectors have left San Diego for more rural areas, Johnson said.

One of the new things fairgoers will notice this year is the refreshed Don Diego Clock Tower, which has been moved to a new, permanent home near the O'Brien entry gate.

It used to sit on the roof of a bathroom at the center of the fair exhibition area, but that was torn down several months ago. In its place, the fair has added Into the Sunset, a new bar, and a second location of Chicken Charlie's, the Clairemont Mesa cookery known for its deep-fried delights.

This year's new items at Chicken Charlie' are deep-fried peanut butter meatballs and a Krispy Kreme ice cream chicken sandwich. Tony Boghosian, Charlie's younger brother, said the desserts draw a lot of publicity but it's the fried chicken and grilled kabobs that keep the booth's 37 cash registers humming nonstop. Last year, the booth sold 30,000 pounds of chicken, and he expects that to grow with the second location.

This year, the fair has slightly adjusted its schedule by closing not only on Mondays (except July 3) but also the first three Tuesdays of the run.

For the most part, though, not much has changed at the fair and that's just how Karen Waltman likes it. Born and raised in San Diego, the Clairemont woman in her mid-50s said she has been coming with her family since she was a child and she likes the sameness of it all.

"We enjoy getting barbecue and visiting Chicken Charlie's and we like the concerts," she said. "It's just always fun to come check things out."

San Diego County Fair

When: Opens at 11 a.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays and June 27; 10 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays and July 2, 3 and 4. Closed Mondays (except July 3) and the first three Tuesdays. The fair closes July 4.

Where: Del Mar Fairgrounds, 2260 Jimmy Durante Blvd., Del Mar

Admission: $11 to 18; free for kids ages 5 and younger. Parking is $13 per vehicle or motorcycle; $23 per vehicle or motorcycle for preferred parking.

Offsite parking and free shuttle service to fair: (daily) Del Mar Horse Park, 14550 El Camino Real, San Diego; (only on weekends and July 3-4, plus additional weekdays after June 21) Torrey Pines High School, at 3710 Del Mar Heights Road, San Diego; (only on weekends and July 3-4) MiraCosta College's San Elijo Campus, at 3333 Manchester Ave., Cardiff.

Phone: (858) 755-1161 or (858) 793-5555 (24-hour recorded information)

Online: sdfair.com

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