Penniman happy to return to role as president of Del Mar fair board

Russ Penniman, board president of the 22nd District Agricultural Association.
Russ Penniman, board president of the 22nd District Agricultural Association.
(Kristina Houck)

With the Breeders’ Cup headed to Del Mar and plans for other projects, the future looks bright for the Del Mar Fairgrounds.

“One of my personal goals from way back when was getting the Breeders’ Cup here,” said Russ Penniman, board president of the 22nd District Agricultural Association. “It’s the Super Bowl of horse racing.”

Now that the Breeders’ Cup is a year away, it’s an exciting time for Penniman to serve as president of the 22nd DAA, which runs the state-owned fairgrounds. Penniman was appointed board president in January.

In preparation for the two-day event, Penniman attended the last two Breeders’ Cups at Santa Anita Park in 2014 and Keeneland in 2015.

“I think we are going to be very competitive,” Penniman said. “San Diego is a destination.”

The San Diego region might be a tourist destination, but Penniman has helped make the Del Mar Fairgrounds, specifically, a popular attraction since he was appointed to the board in 2003. And that is a challenge in the horse racing industry.

At one point, the Del Mar racetrack was one of several options for horse racing throughout the state. Inglewood’s Hollywood Park Racetrack closed in 2013, however, and Pomona’s Fairplex horse racing was moved to Los Alamitos Racetrack in 2014.

But the Del Mar Fairgrounds isn’t just horse racing. It’s home to the the San Diego County Fair and other events throughout the year.

“We try to make it an experience that’s more than just horse racing,” Penniman said.

Attendance at last year’s San Diego County Fair was the second highest in the history of the annual event. The fair’s 25-day run, the longest ever by a day, attracted more than 1.5 million guests.

“It makes us the largest fair in California,” Penniman said.

Penniman also proudly pointed out that the Western Fairs Association recognized San Diego County Fair with 32 awards at the Western Fairs Association’s Convention and Trade Show in January in Anaheim.

During the awards celebration, the 22nd DAA General Manager and CEO, Tim Fennell, was inducted into the Western Fairs Association’s Hall of Fame. The Western Fairs Association is a nonprofit trade association serving the fair industry in the western United States and Canada.

“I think that speaks a lot to the quality of the operation that the group puts on,” Penniman said. “Tim has done a tremendous job.”

The fair is an incredible draw, but horse racing remains an important focus of the Del Mar Fairgrounds. In 2014, Del Mar began hosting a second fall meet, in addition to its regular summer stand.

The summer meet, Penniman said, is more social, particularly during the ever-popular Opening Day, while the fall meet attracts a more horse racing-centric crowd.

“That’s a very nice season,” Penniman said.

Penniman applied for the board partly due to his love of horses. His father was a Navy pilot and his stepfather was a professional horseman — and Penniman followed in both of their footsteps.

A 1979 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, Penniman was a naval aviator with more than 3,000 flight hours. After 15 years of active duty service, Penniman transitioned to the Navy Reserve in 1994. He last served as U.S. Pacific Fleet’s Reserve deputy commander, prior to his retirement in 2014, after 35 years in the Navy.

Penniman, who has two adult children, is managing partner of Penniman & Associates, LLC, a financial services company. A Rancho Santa Fe resident, he was appointed to the 22nd DAA Board of Directors by former Gov. Gray Davis in 2003. This is his second stint as board president.

“This is a great facility,” Penniman said. “I didn’t have an appreciation for how significant this facility was before I came on the board.”

Penniman has also served as chairman of the Del Mar National Horse Show since 2004. Additionally, he previously served as chairman of the State Race Track Authority and the State Race Track Leasing Commission.

“Both my focus in the military and my focus here — it’s about mission and people,” Penniman said. “The mission here is just tremendous. There is so much going on here.

“Although it’s work, it’s great fun to be a part of an organization that’s doing great things and doing them so well.”