Surf Town won the final race on closing day of the 2008 Bay Meadows meet.

Surf Town won the final race on closing day of the 2008 Bay Meadows meet.

Vassar Photography

Bay Meadows Races Toward Final Call

The oldest continually operating track in California ends its final spring stand.

By Jack Shinar & Debbie Arrington

After more than 15 years of uncertainty over its future, Bay Meadows appears headed for its last call.

May 11, is the final day of the current spring stand for the oldest continually operating racecourse in California.

"The reality is setting in that this is the last major weekend of racing," said Charlie Dougherty, who heads the California Thoroughbred Trainers organization in Northern California. "Short of any kind of miracle, anyway."

Supporters of the 74-year-old San Mateo landmark have always depended on miracles to keep the facility going. But as the owner of the property, Bay Meadows Land Company, embarks on an ambitious 83.5-acre redevelopment plan, track officials have told the California Horse Racing Board they will not apply for racing dates in 2009. So, aside from 10 days of racing at the San Mateo County Fair meet that ends Aug. 18, it appears this will be the end.

The largest crowd in 16 years, 14,366, inspired by dollar beer and hot dogs, flocked into Bay Meadows May 9 to say good bye for the final Friday night program. The crowds, including about 4,500 who attended the races the following day, have been good in the final week, as many of the old patrons returned for one final time.

"It's really kind of exciting," said general manager Bernie Thurman, who has worked at the track since 1976. "The place has been buzzing. But it's sad, too."

"I've seen people I haven't seen in years," said Dougherty, a lifelong resident of San Mateo who began coming to the track as a child with his father, Charles Sr., a longtime Northern California racing steward and horse owner. "They all say pretty much the same thing. Over the years, they stopped coming out, and they forgot just what a great time it is. I want to tell them that they were part of the problem."

Indeed, attendance had declined to about 1,500 a day at recent meets, producing a corresponding drop in revenues to the city of San Mateo, which has consistently supported Bay Meadows Land's redevelopment project.

The city is in the process of approving site plans and architectural reviews for the three-phase project that will eventually encompass 750,000 square feet of office space, 93,000 square feet of restaurant and retail space, and 1,066 residential units. The city council, which okayed the first specific site plan April 21, has approved a 15-year window to complete the development.

Genelle Ball, project manager for developer Wilson Meany Sullivan of San Francisco, did not return a phone call May 9 seeking comment on BMLC plans. Horsemen have been told they can continue to use training facilities through September. The developer has applied for permits to begin demolishing the racetrack grandstand and surrounding buildings in October, according to a city planning spokesman.

“It’s like an old friend who’s dying,” said state racing commissioner John Harris, who served as the track’s chairman for several years under a previous stewardship. “You hope you can spend more time with them before they’re gone.”

No full-time replacement is ready to take Bay Meadows' place on Northern California’s racing calendar. Existing fair facilities such as Pleasanton’s Alameda County Fairgrounds, about 35 miles from Bay Meadows, needs $20 million or more in improvements--including barn and grandstand expansion and installation of a synthetic main track and turf course--to accommodate a major Thoroughbred meet.

Due to its proximity to Bay Area-based horsemen and current track employees, the 150-year-old Alameda fair facility--the oldest one-mile track in the United States--is the most discussed option to eventually assume the bulk of Bay Meadows’ dates. But it needs a lot of work over the next three years. Golden Gate Fields in Albany would assume most of the additional racing dates besides its current 105-day schedule. Also, the Northern California racing schedule is likely to undergo some contraction. 

“We’re still weighing various components, from drainage to stalls,” explained Christopher Korby, executive director of the California Authority of Racing Fairs, when asked to estimate the cost of a Pleasanton upgrade.

Under a plan discussed at the CHRB's April 24 meeting, Pleasanton may host two four-week meets, but those dates would be run at Golden Gate until the fair facility is upgraded. The rest of the dates could be spread among the other fair tracks.

Bay Meadows, which moved its stables to the track infield several years ago to accommodate an earlier development project on the property, is home to about 1,000 horses in training year-round. Barns at Golden Gate are already full, and Pleasanton has about 600 stalls, many already occupied.

“A lot of things will change,” said Harris, currently vice chairman of the CHRB. “The plans are all still up in the air. Even if they race at Golden Gate (most of the time), we need to still race somewhere else. But horsemen are very resilient. They'll be racing some place.”

On May 9, a group of neighborhood supporters who want to save the track announced they plan to file a lawsuit to block the demolition. Friends of Bay Meadows contends the site plan okayed by San Mateo’s City Council, because of changes in the traffic flow proposed by state transportation authorities, strays too far from the environmental impact report approved by the city in 2005.

“These issues need to be addressed before the racetrack is torn down,” said Linda Schinkel, a coordinator of the group. "We certainly hope this won't be the last spring meet at Bay Meadows."