Earl Warren Showgrounds
The Earl Warren Showgrounds will host the popular Santa Barbara Fair & Expo, but for the first time, the event will be held in June. (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

Hold your horses. The fair is back in town.

The Earl Warren Showgrounds will host the annual Santa Barbara Fair & Expo this year, June 23-27.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of the fair last year, and it was looking like the popular event would get nixed again. It usually takes place around this time — the last week in April.

But in a stroke of good fortune, the carnival organizers approached Earl Warren Showgrounds officials to offer their services in June, after the expected reopening of events in California.

And, appropriately, this year’s theme is “Santa Barbara Rides Again.”

“It is going to be one of the biggest events in Santa Barbara,” said Ben Sprague, CEO of the showgrounds. “The idea is to bring the community together.”

The fair is the showgrounds’ biggest financial event, bringing in about $250,000 annually. The showgrounds in recent years has struggled financially, so holding the fair is essential to the financial success of the showgrounds.

It’s one of Santa Barbara’s dear institutions, a home for Fiesta Rodeo events, shows and exhibits inside Warren Hall, and a variety of live entertainment events, from Mariachi concerns and country bands to mixed martial arts fights and pro wrestling. 

The last-minute scheduling of the fair, however, forced the postponement or cancellation of a Santa Barbara County Riding Club horse show that had been scheduled for that week. Sprague said the showgrounds is attempting to find a new set of dates for the horse show.

“It’s a bummer,” Sprague said. “Nobody is happy about it.”

He acknowledged that the local show is a “blow” to the horse riding community. Courtney Cochran, organizer of the show that was canceled, declined to comment.

Sprague said the truth of the matter is that the fair comes first because it generates more money annually than all of the other horse events combined. As a state-owned facility, the showgrounds also is legally obligated to hold an annual fair by the 19th District Agriculture Association.

“We continue to need to evolve our business model to be competitive to have a long-term successful business plan,” Sprague said. “If we’re really going to be the event center that Santa Barbara deserves, we are going to have to continue to make changes and be the best showgrounds that Santa Barbara can have.”

This year’s fair will offer free admission and follow the state and county guidelines for social distancing, Sprague said. Some of the entertainment offerings, such as the live music and livestock events, will be scaled back because of the short timetable to put on the event, but the rest of the fair will be full scale, with carnival rides such as the Ferris wheel, roller-coasters and games. 

The fair’s return comes at a perfect time. Since 2019, when Sprague took over, he had to obtain operational loans of close to $200,000 that he repaid after the revenue from the fair came in. 

Board vice president Tori Milazzo said the staff will work hard to prepare the faculty for people once again.

“Like everyone, we are just really, really excited as a board to be able to welcome the community back to the property and welcome the community to come together,” Milazzo said. “There are just a lot of exciting things happening at the showgrounds right now.”

Milazzo called the Santa Barbara County Riding Club “an incredible, longstanding partner,” and acknowledged the horse show’s contribution to improving the stables and other horse facilities. 

“The show season already is off to a good start,” Milazzo said. “We are really exited for the staff and management to work with all the local equestrian communities and see more equestrian events and activities on the showground property.”

The future is bright for everyone at the showgrounds, he said. 

“We are excited to open doors and be a place where we can bring people together,” Milazzo said. “We are excited to kick of the summer with a fun fair.”

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at jmolina@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.