Gentle Giants big business in Nevada County |

Gentle Giants big business in Nevada County

Last weekend’s 30th annual Draft Horse Classic was expected to draw nearly 12,000 ticket-holders to the Nevada County Fairgrounds, all paying an average of $18 for each performance they attended. There were additional visitors to the Harvest Fair, but since that event doesn’t require tickets, total attendance is unknown.

Hundreds of DHC fans camp at the fairgrounds, and many more stay in area hotels and motels. Lots of visitors eat along Treat Street, while others dine in local restaurants and cafes. Those attending the Classic also spend money in local shops.

“This is an incredible event for the community. It generates huge dollars for the local economy,” said Rea Callender, Chief Executive Officer of the 17th District Agricultural Association — the official name for the Fairgrounds.

The draft horse show costs about $286,000 to produce and brings in $300,000 in revenue. That’s a tiny return for the Fairgrounds, but Callendar said the DHC represents much more than numbers.

“People love the Draft Horse Classic,” he said, adding that the Fairgrounds has only anecdotal data about the DHC’s economic impact. “Months before the event, when we open up for ticket sales and RV park reservations, there is a long waiting line that begins at 4 a.m. And our phones ring off the hook.”

Revenue for the DHC breaks down this way: tickets sales $150,000, sponsorships and advertisements in the program $50,000, camping/RV fees $35,000, entry fees and concessions $30,000, parking $20,000, and vendor booth fees $15,000.

The biggest expense is salaries and wages totaling $50,000, followed by: arena expenses (tractors, water trucks, sound system) $45,000, premiums paid to exhibitors $38,000, utilities $35,000, professional services (announcers, judge, show manager) $35,000, entertainment (arena specialty acts) $28,000, Harvest Fair expenses $25,000, programs $20,000, and publicity $10,000.

Do the math, and the Fairgrounds’ projected net profit is less than $15,000.

“It takes a lot of people to run the event, plus we’re lighting up the entire place for five days!” exclaimed Callender. “We’re happy if we break even or make $15,000, if all goes well.”

And when things don’t go well? There is event insurance.

In 1988, the DHC was cancelled because the fairgrounds were needed as a staging area and evacuation center during the 49er Fire. In 1989 and several other years, some performances had to be cancelled because of torrential rains. In many of those cases, event insurance helped defray the Fairgrounds’ losses.

While the DHC has grown steadily over the past 30 years and is now the biggest draft horse show in the West, similar draft horse events have suffered dwindling visitors and entries. Several shows have been cancelled altogether.

Callender said he doesn’t see an end to the DHC and its popularity.

“There are ways we can make it more profitable. What’s the major expense in starting any new business? It’s starting the brand. The Draft Horse Classic is already an established brand,” explained Callender. “We can add events within the event that will add to the profitability.”

When the DHC began in 1987, Ed Scofield was the CEO of the Fairgrounds. For each of the first three years, the show received seed money of $30,000 from the California Department of Agriculture. When that start-up money ended, Scofield said the DHC began in earnest to recruit sponsors.

“Sponsorships are vital to the success of the Draft Horse Classic. They really make the show work,” said Scofield. “In the early years, we’d get sponsors but we really didn’t know how to treat them. We started a partnership with Craig Hoddy, so people would get the recognition they deserve.”

Hoddy owns and operates Nevada County Gold, a local marketing company that produces an area guide of the same name. With Hoddy’s help, the Nevada County Fair Partnership Development team has secured more than 20 DHC sponsors. There are another 50-plus businesses that purchase ads in the DHC program, which is distributed free to spectators.

“Our gratefulness to our generous partners and sponsors cannot be overstated. Simply, there would not be a Draft Horse Classic and Harvest Fair without the support of the community,” said Hoddy. “Our sponsors, by helping to underwrite the event, have significantly offset the promotional and operational costs, including paying for the publishing of the program and making it free to ticket holders.”

Markstein Beverage Company of Sacramento is one of two Presenting Sponsors.

“Sometimes the smartest, most valuable business decisions when investing in sponsorships are not about signage, promotions, or on-site activations. They are about people, history, and the community,” explained Michelle Prater, Anheuser-Busch brand manager for Markstein. “We believe in supporting and celebrating the traditions of the community.”

“Many visitors to the Draft Horse Classic and even the judge stay at our hotel,” said Sean Gilleran, General Manager of the Gold Miners Inn-Holiday Inn Express, the other Presenting Sponsor of the DHC. “We are pleased to support an event that brings everyone so much joy. Our sponsorship is one way we show our commitment to the event and our community.”

Recruiting sponsors and running the event like a business helped ensure the financial viability of the DHC early on, said Scofield.

“You can’t have performances continue past midnight, and you’ve always got to keep the audience entertained,” he recalled. “Many people were leaving before the performances were over, and missing some of the best classes and specialty acts of the show. We decided to end evening performances earlier. And we made the business decision to spend more money on quality acts that perform between classes.”

Those specialty acts — plus the grandeur of the Gentle Giants themselves – are what draw so many visitors to plan their vacations around the DHC.

“We’ve got a group of 50 people at the show. We’re staying at the RV park in our Beaver motor coaches,” said John Shurtz of Auburn, who noted his Beaver Club entourage attending the DHC includes members from as far away as Florida and New York. “We started coming to the Draft Horse Classic five years ago and each year our group gets bigger. The Classic is a really spectacular show. It’s not like going to the fair where they’re judging hogs.”

As long as loyal DHC fans keep coming, Callender said the show will go on.

“Consider the memories, the tradition — and all the good we’ve done here and continue to do,” summed up Callender. “I don’t see it stopping.”

Lorraine Jewett is a freelance writer who lives in Nevada County. Contact her at to suggest a business news feature for Money Monday.

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