Bye Bay Meadows, hello to change in California horse racing

Jul 15, 2008 7:00 PM

Golden Edge by Ed Golden | The fabric of racing in California changed forever when venerable Bay Meadows closed its doors three months ago after more than seven decades.

It will take years before the trickle down impact on the trackís demise will be fully realized, although initial ramifications, great and small, will be felt throughout the state.

Bay Meadows, located in San Mateo in Northern California, ended 73 years of racing on May 11. The Bay Meadows Land Company, a real estate development group that owns Bay Meadows and Hollywood Park, plans to develop 1.25 million square feet of office space, 1,250 residential units, 150,000 square feet of retail space and 15 acres of public parks, in addition to rebuilding Hillsdale Caltrain station near the site of the old Bay Meadows Caltrain station.

Bay Meadows, built on the site of an old airfield, was the longest continually operating thoroughbred track in California. Bill Shoemaker began his career there in 1958 and won his first stakes race there in 1949. Bay Meadows was once the home of the legendary Seabiscuit. Citation and John Henry raced there. On Dec. 1, 2006, perennial Bay Area riding king Russell Baze established the record for most wins by a North American jockey with victory No. 9,531.

Hollywood Park could follow Bay Meadows on the chopping block, although according to a June 30 story by Jack Shinar of The Blood-Horse, it plans to race at least through the spring and summer of 2009, provided it gets its traditional dates. The story went on to say that "Craig Fravel, executive president of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club speaking for a committee of industry stake holders in Southern California, said that if Hollywood Park were to suspend racing before the fall 2009 meet, those dates would be assigned to Fairplex."

Officials at Bay Meadows had said they wanted to race as long as possible, but balked at the California Horse Racing Boardís mandate to install a synthetic surface on its main track at a cost that could have reached $10 million. "Itís impractical to spend up to $10 million when you donít know if youíre going to continue to run here," Bay Meadows President F. Jack Liebau was quoted as saying at the time. The CHRB denied a request by Bay Meadows for two-year exemption to the mandate in March of 2007. On July 3, 2007, however, the CHRB unanimously approved a one-year exemption for Bay Meadows to continue on its traditional dirt track surface.

"The closing of Bay Meadows will affect the people who worked there and live in that area more than anything," said 71-year-old trainer Art Sherman, a fixture in the Bay Area for five decades, who moved a large string to Southern California several years ago. His sons, Steve and Alan, head his Northern California operation. Added Sherman: "Iíve got my home in San Mateo and a lot of trainers live in that area, and theyíll have to evaluate whether they want to remain there now.

"Iíve got a condo where Steve stays at Golden Gate (in Albany), so Iím probably going to wind up selling that, because thereís a chance Iíll be moving to Southern California once I know what area weíre going to be in. And thatís another thing; we donít know how long Hollywood Park is going to be available, so Iím kind of sitting on the fence right now.

"Golden Gate got most of the dates Bay Meadows had, and I think youíll see Pleasanton with about a monthís worth of dates, and thatís about it. The fairs donít want any more dates; they have their own little thing and they make most of their money from simulcasts. Other than that, I donít think youíll see much change in Northern California.

"But itís going to be hard to get fresh horsemen to come into Northern California for racing. Purses there havenít increased in a few years and there are three or four big outfits that control most of the horses running. Itís hard for a small guy to make it up there, to be honest with you. If youíve got a $4,000 horse, you run it for an $8,000 pot and by the time you pay here and pay there, thereís nothing left. Iím always a little concerned about the future of racing there, I really am. I just hope they can get some kind of boost in the economy somewhere.

"Itís more expensive to live up there. Gas is higher and housing is higher. I donít think youíll see anybody jumping out of their skin to go to the race track."

The homestretch

ē You read it here first: Word is that Hollywood Park wants to host the 2010 Breedersí Cup. It would mark the third straight year racingís championship day would be held in Southern California. Santa Anita is the site this year on Oct. 24 and 25 and again in 2009.

ē The victory by Red Rocks over Curlin in the Man oí War Stakes wasnít the first time a proven grass horse defeated a Horse of the Year making his turf debut. T.V. Lark upset Kelso in the 1961 Washington D.C. International.

ē Look for major layoffs at the Los Angeles Times this week. The racing insouciant newspaper will provide live coverage at Del Mar on Wednesdayís opener. The only other coverage of the 43-day meet is Pacific Classic Day on Aug 24.

ē Does Adam Eaton keep his spot in the Philsí rotation by holding lewd pictures of manager Charlie Manuel?