Bay Meadows extension buys time for horsemen

Jul 3, 2007 3:28 AM

With apologies to Mark Twain (nee Samuel Clemens), reports of the death of Bay Meadows have been exaggerated. The track will not close at the end of this year. It will not install a synthetic main track by that time, either, as mandated by the California Horse Racing Board.

In a plot thicker than Angelina Jolie’s lips, the good folks at Bay Meadows had gone on record as saying they would shut their doors forever on Nov. 4 if the CHRB did not grant the 73-year-old facility in San Mateo, California, a waiver in committing to a synthetic surface, which would have cost some $8 million.

The CHRB, with the safety of horse and rider its primary objective, said no way, seeing as the other California tracks with a meet of four weeks or longer—Hollywood Park, Del Mar and Santa Anita—have complied with the order. Golden Gate is expected to follow suit by Aug. 1. But Bay Meadows, which, like Hollywood, is run by the Bay Meadows Land Company, a real estate investment outfit, greeted the mandate kicking and screaming, creating a political ruckus that resulted in a state senate resolution eliminating the CHRB’s $10.8 million budget and a demand that CHRB Chairman Richard Shapiro, whose platform is horsemen first, resign.

Depending on one’s point of view, either an amicable compromise was reached, or the CHRB caved. It gave Bay Meadows a one-year waiver in principle, which was expected to be approved at its next meeting, scheduled via conference call at press time. But continued racing at Bay Meadows—albeit for one year—is an encouraging sign to horsemen who earned their spurs in the Bay Area.

"I think it’s perfect," said 70-year-old trainer and former jockey Art Sherman, a fixture in Northern California racing for 40 years. "It’s about time they did something right. The extra time gives everybody a chance to prepare. It gives us one more year to make plans, and it helps tracks to prepare for their future. Plus, it helps the economy by keeping track employees working.

"Personally, it gives me a chance to get ready. I have to sell my home and have some kind of game plan. I think 2008 will be the last year of racing at Bay Meadows, but beyond that, I think Pleasanton probably will pick up some more dates, and Santa Rosa, too. Golden Gate, of course, will have the longest meet because it’s better prepared, already having a grass course and all. But after 2008, that’s it for Bay Meadows, and it’s never good for racing when they shut down a track. Nobody ever builds one these days. When’s the last time you’ve seen one built?"

There was more good news emanating from the CHRB meeting at Hollywood Park on June 19. In addition to affirming his commitment to a synthetic (Tapeta) surface at Golden Gate Fields in Albany, California, and a Cushion Track at Santa Anita, Magna Entertainment Chairman Frank Stronach pledged $24 million for those two projects, in addition to an overdue upgrade of Santa Anita’s stable area, which has stood virtually untouched since Seabiscuit rode off into the sunset.

"I thought Stronach’s comments were good," said Sherman, who attended the meeting. "He committed to the synthetic surfaces at Santa Anita and Golden Gate, and to fixing the barn area at Santa Anita, so that was nice to hear."

Like Keely Smith’s page boy, Greg Gilchrist would like Bay Meadows to remain in perpetuity.

"I wish it was not going away, even after 2008," said the 59-year-old trainer, whose base of operations has been the Bay Area. "I think Northern California racing would be better with two different (major) race tracks. But I hope when Bay Meadows does run, it provides a safe surface and operates like it’s going to be in business for the next 100 years.

"I certainly would not want to see them put on a meet with a plan that’s short-lived, figuring they’re only going to be in the racing business for a year, and have us run in deplorable conditions and on a bad race track."

Gilchrist was hoping against hope that 2008 would not result in a dirge for Bay Meadows.

"They said it would close seven years ago, and it’s still racing," he said. "They bought themselves another year, so who knows what might happen?"


The homestretch

”¡ The Pacific Classic at Del Mar in August is next for Lava Man, who matched Native Diver’s record Saturday by winning the Hollywood Gold Cup for the third consecutive year. "He’s always been a sound horse," said Dennis O’Neill, deputizing for brother Doug, who was in Ireland with his life, Lynette, during the Gold Cup, celebrating the birthday of his mother, Dixie. "There’s no reason he won’t continue to race next year." The 6-year-old California-bred gelding, the greatest claim in racing history, has earned more than $5.2 million.

”¡ If Patrick Valenzuela resumes riding at Del Mar, as rumored, he must first reapply for a provisional license and be granted same from the California Horse Racing Board. The 44-year-old jockey has not ridden since last Nov. 26, when he was injured in a paddock mishap at Hollywood.

”¡ Prospect Park, runner-up in the Jim Murray, had been aiming for the Grade II Sunset Breeders’ Cup Handicap at Hollywood on closing day, July 15, but suffered a broken left front cannon bone and will be out indefinitely. "A screw was inserted to help it heal and we hope he will return to the races," said Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella.

”¡ And a word of thanks to Paris Hilton for getting Anna Nicole Smith off the front page.