To unanimous endorsement by those on hand Nov. 7, Magna Entertainment's Golden Gate Fields unveiled its new $10-million synthetic track on opening day of the fall/winter meet. The 66-year-old bayside landmark became the fourth major track in California to convert its main dirt track to a synthetic surface as part of a state mandate. Santa Anita and Hollywood Park use Cushion Track. Del Mar installed Polytrack. Made of wax, rubber, fibers, and sand, synthetic surfaces are considered safer for horses because they have more bounce.
"This is the start of a re-birth of racing up here," said Drew Couto, president of the Thoroughbred Owners of California, who was among the racing representatives at the official debut and ribbon-cutting. "It protects inventory. More horses mean more competitive racing, and that's what fans really want. It's exciting. The demand for stall space is at an all-time high and the horses here are here to run."
General manager Robert Hartman confirmed they had many more requests for stall space than the Albany track could accommodate with its 1,350 openings. He said he hopes to build barns with 250 new stalls for additional horses.
"This really is a sea change for Northern California racing," Hartman said. "It's very exciting. NorCal racing is probably in the best shape we've ever been. We've got to get through Bay Meadows' closure, if it closes, and face those challenges. But the future actually looks very bright right now."
A new day? Maybe. But some things never change in Northern California.
The first race was captured by the always formidable tandem of trainer Jerry Hollendorfer and jockey Russell Baze when Devil Cielo ($7.20) charged from the back of the field in the stretch to win a starter allowance race by three-quarters of a length for owners Hollendorfer and his longtime client, Dr. George Todaro. The final time for the mile heat was a solid 1:36.28.
The first impression was that there was virtually no kickback. Baze returned to the jockey's room looking as though he had just come out.
"Nothing sticks to you. Jockeys always like that," Baze said. "It's really a pleasure to ride over. It's like riding over a dirt track with a good cushion. Horses can really grab hold. What's not to like?"
Hollendorfer said, "At least we know a horse can sit back off the pace and win. It will take some time to see how horses really like it. Everybody's still guessing about these tracks (with synthetic surfaces). I'll keep training the way I've always trained. I don't think I should throw out 30 years of experience because they changed the track."
The trainer lost a horse to a Nov. 5 workout injury at Golden Gate, but he said the new track was not at fault. The track has been open for training since Oct. 5 and there have been two fatal injuries.
Trainer Michael Dickinson, who owns the company that produces Tapeta Footings, paced the winner's circle nervously before and during the opening race, his arms folded as he watched the fractions posted on the odds board. He said the racing surface "was excellent at the moment, but it will get even better with time." He explained that the track had been harrowed by heavier tractors during the five weeks it had been in use for training and that the new lighter tractors had only just arrived. The times, he explained, would be a little quick because the track is tighter than it will be after experiencing more racing.
The lanky Englishman worked off some pre-race jitters, he said, by jogging the track barefoot in the morning after training hours. He said it actually gave him a good idea of the track's cushion.
The horses all came back well throughout the day, so he was pleased. "That's what I would consider a success, if everyone comes back safe."
Pennsylvania's new Presque Isle Downs, the only other track that races on Tapeta, had a fatal breakdown on its opening day in September, and Dickinson admitted he was concerned that horses moving to the all-weather track after months of hard training on dirt would be susceptible to injury.
Hartman said he was encouraged that field size for opening week is up an average of almost two horses per race, from 6.6 at Bay Meadows' just completed meet to 8.5 opening week. There were an average of nine horses per race on opening day. He also noted that Golden Gate will save an estimated 30 million gallons of water per year by not having to water the surface. And when Mother Nature unloads, as it often does in this Bay Area region, the track will be fast.
"There will be no more sloppy tracks at Golden Gate Fields," Hartman said.
“It’s been universally loved and accepted by the trainers here,” he added. “That’s amazing; trainers rarely agree on anything. Talk to 10 trainers, you get 10 different opinions. But so far, they all agree. It's safer for horses and kinder. The horses seem to be enjoying the surface. They're coming back fresh and not run down or tired.”