Anyone familiar with racing in Northern California has known for years that Bay Meadows was living on borrowed time—even before it was purchased by the Bay Meadows Land Co. in 1997. Located in the bustling suburban town of San Mateo, just south of San Francisco, the track sits on real estate so valuable that almost any owner would have a difficult time justifying the continuation of live racing.
If Bay Meadows closes for good after this year’s live race meeting, as the track’s chief executive, Jack Liebau, said it would, the California Horse Racing Board should not be blamed. All the CHRB did was stand behind its May 2006 decision requiring all California tracks racing more than four continuous weeks per year to install synthetic surfaces by Jan. 1, 2008. Bay Meadows wanted a two-year exemption from the mandate, but that request was denied. The board, led by chairman Richard Shapiro, deserves praise, not condemnation, for doing what is in the best interest of the horses, for synthetic surfaces have proven to reduce injuries.
The CHRB’s mandate is not only the right thing to do for the safety of horses, it is a benefit to owners, too, and ultimately for the tracks. Fewer injuries ensures there will be more horses in training, which will lead to larger field sizes, which usually translates to increased pari-mutuel handle. Owners are always happier to have horses racing and training rather than convalescing or recovering.
Though the Bay Meadows Land Co. does not yet have final approval to bulldoze the racetrack itself, portions of the surrounding property already have been developed in various stages. One phase eliminated the stable area, which now sits in the racetrack infield. Offices and residential units have been constructed on other sections of the track property.
The shuttering of Bay Meadows will be a blow to California owners and breeders, but it forces the industry to get serious about seeking a long-term solution to filling the void that the track’s closing leaves behind. As Drew Couto, president of the Thoroughbred Owners of California, said: “We must move forward with plans to improve existing or develop new racing/training facilities in the North, for the good of the horses, fans, and the thousands of people who earn their living at the track.”
Additional dates can be allocated to Golden Gate Fields or to one or more of the Northern California racing fairs, and Magna Entertainment, owner of Golden Gate, has plans, pending a local referendum, to build a new track in the small town of Dixon, near Sacramento. But there is no getting around the fact that the loss of Bay Meadows is a serious setback.
Bay Meadows Land Co. also owns Hollywood Park, another attractive piece of real estate that is more valuable as development property than as a racetrack. When the company bought the Los Angeles-area track from Churchill Downs Inc. in 2005, Bay Meadows Land Co. president Terry Fancher would only give a three-year commitment to continue live racing at Hollywood Park, unless slot machines or other financial incentive were added to the mix. That hasn’t happened, so the clock is ticking there, too.
Fancher’s company acted quickly at Hollywood Park to meet the CHRB’s synthetic surface mandate, installing Cushion Track before its 2006 fall meeting. But that investment doesn’t mean the company has any intention to continue operations beyond the three years promised by Fancher.
Bay Meadows Land Co. can’t be blamed for wanting to develop the racetrack properties they have purchased. They are in the development business—not the racing business. But neither the CHRB nor the racing industry can afford to be held hostage by land developers, and decisions have to be made based on what is best for the long term.
That’s exactly what the CHRB has done.