Under gray, misty skies in the Gaslamp Quarter Saturday morning, there were joggers, babies in strollers, tourists, homeless people, cops and cows. Lots and lots of cows.
Just after 7:30 a.m., a herd of 200 American Longhorn and Mexican Corriente cattle began making its way down Harbor Drive under the guidance of 48 cowpokes on horseback and a small but fast-moving fleet of herding dogs. The cattle drive, said to be first in 100 years in downtown San Diego, was organized by the San Diego County Fair, which opened its annual run Friday with a “Where the West is Fun” theme.
Thousands of delighted spectators lined the 2½-mile route, which began at Harbor Drive and Pacific Coast Highway. Moving at a rate of 3 to 4 mph, the cattle drive moved southeast past the San Diego Convention Center, then turned north on Fifth Avenue and west on Market Street before returning to its staging ground in Ruocco Park near Seaport Village.
Moments before the drive began, Jim Marshall of San Diego stood near the starting point with his cellphone camera poised for action, just in case an unexpected stampede occurred.
“Cows in downtown San Diego — what could possibly go wrong?” he said with a laugh.
Fortunately, the 45-minute drive came off mostly without a hitch. Early on, a cattle dog took off in the wrong direction down Harbor, but a woman on horseback brought him back. Then as the herd moved under the Gaslamp Quarter monument sign on Fifth Avenue, some cows got spooked and began turning in circles. Finally near the end of the drive as the cattle prepared to cross the San Diego Trolley tracks from Market to Harbor, the trolley crossing gates unexpectedly came down in their path causing some fear and confusion before they were routed around and under the obstacle and carried on.
Nearby watching the cow detour was Rhonda Ohnesorge of Solana Beach, who came down with her 10-year-old yellow Labrador retriever Beauregard. “Beau-y” had a yellow lariat-style bandanna tied around his neck and Ohnesorge was in cowboy boots and a black Stetson hat. A native of Wisconsin, she’s ridden horses all of her life but had never seen a cattle drive.
“It was exciting,” said Ohnesorge, who specializes in dressage riding. “What more could you ask for than cows, dogs and cowboys?”
The cattle drive was organized by Newport Beach resident Doug Lofstrom, who retired in 2014 after 35 years in fair promotions. Since 1985, he has produced a combined 11 cattle drives for fairs in Hemet, Los Angeles, Costa Mesa and Huntington Beach. For Saturday’s event, he hand-picked all the riders, who came with their horses from as far as Riverside County and the high desert. The cattle — all rodeo-trained event stock that are accustomed to noise, crowds and distractions — were trucked in from the Inland Empire.
The horses walked in an upside-down U formation with the cattle inside the curve, and their path was cleared by a network of police and port authority staff. But Lofstrom said the “unsung heroes” of the drive were the eight trained cattle dogs who ran around the herd’s heels to keep them together and in motion.
The well-trained border collies and McNab shepherds were brought down by two real-life cattle ranchers, John Luiz of Modesto and Russ Fields of Castro Valley. Both men raise cattle on 30,000-acre ranches and said the fair-related events are the only opportunity they have to take part in the old-fashioned tradition of the cattle drive, which died out in the 1950s.
Downtown resident Amy Pillersdorf, who positioned a folding chair on the sidewalk beneath her apartment just after 7 a.m., was thrilled by the scene and surprised at how quickly and efficiently the 100-yard drive moved past her building. “That was fun and really cool, but short.”
Not far behind the horses came the clean-up crew and street-sweeping machine, which swept up manure and washed the asphalt so the roads were clean and reopened to traffic by 8:30 a.m.
Afterward, hundreds of spectators stayed to watch Luiz and Fields load the cattle up chutes into waiting trailers at Ruocco Park. Among them were Mission Valley residents Laura and Ryan Engh and their 2-year-old daughter Hailey. They came because their daughter loves animals and they were curious to see the spectacle, which they said didn’t disappoint.
The drive also attracted about a dozen sign-toting animal rights activists. Quietly holding a hand-written “Not Ours to Eat!” sign near the cattle pen was downtown resident Mike Weinberg, 64. He became a vegan 20 years ago and has taken part in protests against SeaWorld and the now-defunct Ringling Bros. circus. He wasn’t at all ruffled by the many negative comments from spectators.
“What we do is make people think,” he said. “We’re like the burr under the saddle that we hope they’ll remember.”
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)