Once a year, for two weeks, the little Humbolt County Fair in the small town of Ferndale, California kicks off. I've heard it's the longest continually running county fair, stretching back to the 1870s if I remember correctly.
Let me set the context, because that's part of the appeal. Ferndale is a tiny dairy community tucked into the mountains of very Northern California, not far from the costal city of Eureka. This is beautiful country where redwoods meet the pounding sea. I've been there a handful of times and now I'm thrilled to be able to watch the horse races at the fair from my TV or computer screen given the technology available now. The fair is like most county fairs with fried everything and lots of animal exhibits and show competitions. Against this beautiful backdrop sits a little 5/8 mile racetrack, as cute as it is dangerous. Tight turns, the intimacy of the crowd and animals, and the enthusiasm by all involved make this a special place. For once, it's not about the competition as much as it's about enjoying yourself.
I've done a few articles on Ferndale, once even getting the cover story for The Blood-Horse magazine, where I was a correspondent for almost 20 years. There is just something touching about this place because of it's size and it's unusual appearance. Being a dairy town, the home to a Knudsen Creamery, the baked potatoes with sour cream are exceptional. He townsfolk, so I've heard, save up all year for two weeks of betting horses, enjoying the fair daily, and just marveling at what they've got. Aside from horses best described as underachievers, what's they've got is something historical, consistent, and timeless. This is horse racing as it was, with all the risk, color, and pageantry on a slightly smaller scale.
Racing at Ferndale is capped off with the running of the Humbolt County Marathon, at a mile and 5/8. That means three complete circles around the track. The lore says that in the beginning, each jockey was given 3 pebbles to hold in their mouth as the race was run. Every time they crossed the finish line they were to spit out one pebble. When the third pebble was gone, they were to ride to the finish line one more time and the race was over. Somehow, I believe this story.