Bay Meadows Could Race in 2008

With State Sen. Leland Yee in attendance at its May 22 meeting in Sacramento, the California Horse Racing Board threw open the possibility that Bay Meadows could resume racing in 2008.

Bay Meadows president Jack Liebau told the board that the 73-year-old track could reconsider its decision to shut its doors if it can get the calendar dates he wants.

Bay Meadows announced in March that it would close when its fall meet ends Nov. 4 after the CHRB refused to waive its requirement that all major Thoroughbred tracks in the state install synthetic racing surfaces by 2008. Bay Meadows, which is facing demolition for redevelopment of the San Mateo property, has refused to make the multi-million dollar investment for a new track surface and sought a two-year waiver.

The CHRB has come under some intense political pressure to reverse course. Yee, a Democrat whose San Francisco district includes San Mateo, has sharply criticized the board. He authored a State Senate resolution calling for the resignation of board chairman Richard Shapiro and also convinced a budget sub-committee to "zero out" the CHRB's budget for the coming fiscal year.

The Bay Meadows reconsideration was not on the agenda for a vote, but after much debate, Liebau agreed to meet with representatives from Golden Gate Fields, the fairs, and the Thoroughbred Owners of California to see if an acceptable calendar for '08 can be worked out. They are expected to return to the board for its next meeting June 19.

“I’m rather disappointed that this was not an action item,” said Yee, who did not address the board. “It was pretty obvious to me that both sides want to try and resolve this issue. As it stands right now, the track will still close at the end of the year -- which is not good for a lot of people.”

The CHRB’s budget will be debated during upcoming conference committee sessions. Yee said the legislature “would take that opportunity to look at what the horse racing board does. What’s its goal? What’s its mission? This isn’t about the budget; it’s about saving horse racing.”

Liebau argued that the board should suspend its synthetic track mandate because it fails to require uniformity in regulation of racing. He noted that the fairs, which account for 17% of Thoroughbred races, and Los Alamitos, which runs 10% -- on a year-round basis -- are not being required to install artificial surfaces. And he questioned whether Santa Anita will install an artificial track this year.

Asked if he would consent to run in 2008, Liebau responded, "It depends on how many dates we get. Our 2007 dates were the pits because they were fabricated around the installation of a synthetic track at Golden Gate Fields. I think we can have a reasonable conclusion.

"We're all in the soup together in this. I am saying that if we get dates that are fair to us, we would run."

The future of racing in Northern California was further complicated last week when a pair of environmental groups, the Bay Area chapter of the Sierra Club and the Citizens for East Shore Parks, challenged Golden Gate Fields' plans for installation of a synthetic Tapeta Footings track. Track general manager Robert Hartman said the groups want to force Golden Gate to produce a full environmental impact report on the project. Even if the city of Albany sides with the track, appeals and potential litigation could tie the project up for as long as 18 months. He said the track plans to begin work on the project June 12, two days after the current meet ends, and have it completed by Labor Day.

"The good news is we don't start racing again until the first week in November," Hartman said. "We could have a one-month delay and still be able to get it done."

Hartman said he was encouraged that "there was an outpouring of support for the plan" during an information session before the Albany City Council May 21. But he said "dissident groups" could still stop it going forward. "They are very good at this sort of thing," he said.

Drew Couto, president of the TOC, said the Northern California "situation is still too fluid" after chairing a two-day meeting last week with representatives from several tracks, with the exception of Bay Meadows, who want to be included in the dates plan. “We’ve made some assumptions and came up with very different scenarios. The plans would need some tweaking. We want people to know that we as an industry will have a plan. But presenting those plans now would be premature.”  

Allocation of race dates would be considered this fall.

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