Commentary: Surfaces and Shut-downs

By - Morton Cathro

Santa Anita’s wet-weather woes flooding its synthetic track remind a dwindling number of oldtimers of the rain-soaked, not-so-grand opening a half-century ago of Golden Gate Fields and its clay-like racing surface that doomed the track to temporary oblivion.

This aging correspondent, who as a teenager/young man witnessed Golden Gate’s birth and subsequent re-birth, joins today’s fans in wishing Santa Anita a weather-clear, track-fast solution to its watery problems.

Bad weather this winter is forcing costly cancellations of race days at numerous other tracks around the country, and one can only hope for a kinder, gentler spring.

World War II, not weather, contributed to many racetrack closings in the early ’40s as America harnessed all resources to do battle. Here in California, historic Tanforan was commandeered by the Federal government shortly after the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor. Thousands of Japanese-American citizens, considered security risks, were herded into Tanforan’s stables as they awaited forced relocation.

While other West Coast tracks lay moribund or served as military staging areas, Bay Meadows, just down the road from Tanforan, was permitted horseracing during the war, thanks to the far-sightedness and generosity of its owner-builder, William P. Kyne. The “father” of modern-day horseracing in the state, Kyne had led the successful 1933 drive to return the sport to California. He got the green light when he pledged 92% of all profits to the war effort.

A year before the war, another Irish-American sportsman, possibly less farsighted, shared the blame—along with the weather—for the Golden Gate debacle. Edward P. “Slip” Madigan, the flamboyant football coach at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, headed a consortium of investors who built Golden Gate Fields in nearby Albany. Possessed of every modern amenity, and commanding a spectacular view of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge, the new facility unfortunately was saddled with a heavy, untested racing strip with inadequate drainage.

After one of the rainiest winters in Bay Area history led to several postponements, Golden Gate Fields finally opened its gates on Saturday, Feb. 1, 1941, for its long-trumpeted inaugural meeting.

On gooey mud more suited to fashioning adobe bricks favored by padres who built the Spanish missions two centuries earlier, Skookumchuck, a claimer bred by Bing Crosby, won the first race, struggling to the wire in 1:20 2⁄5 for the six furlongs. Stakes horses Augury and Blon Gla performed somewhat better, taking the day’s six furlong co-features in 1:17 3⁄5 and 1:19 3⁄5, respectively. Young Earl Dew, the nation’s winningest jockey in 1940 who came West for the opening, couldn’t get a horse to the winner’s circle in five tries.

In a tragically ironic aftermath, Dew, 18, immediately flew south to be honored the next day during Agua Caliente’s Sunday card. He was killed in a spill there that afternoon, the engraved wristwatch he was to have received going unbestowed.

The jinx was on. Golden Gate Fields lasted just four more days. Jockeys refused to ride on the treacherous surface, the track closed, and the owners went broke. During the war, the infield was crammed with landing craft bound for island battlegrounds in the Pacific.

Six-plus years later, on Sept. 9, 1947—California’s Admission Day holiday commemorating its statehood—a re-born Golden Gate Fields opened to a throng of 30,316. New owners had taken over, scraped away the clay, and installed a lightning-fast strip of silt and sandy loam from the fertile San Joaquin Valley.

In the ensuing decade, no fewer than 10 world records were set, from six furlongs to 1 1⁄4 miles. Citation, Noor, Shannon II, Prevaricator, and Bolero were among those record holders. Fair Truckle and Count Speed set world records the same afternoon. Other stars such as John Henry, Determine, Silky Sullivan and Silveyville shone brightly, and the likes of Longden, Ycaza, and other big-time jockeys graced the riding colony. Willie Shoemaker, an unheralded, winless apprentice, broke his maiden there on April 20, 1949.

Though no longer in the big leagues of Thoroughbred racing, Golden Gate today, with its brand new synthetic surface, still is making news: In November, a 3-year-old named Tribesman won the Sausalito Stakes in 1:08.34—time equivalent to a world record set on the re-surfaced track a half-century earlier.

MORTON CATHRO is an award-winning newsman, now retired, and a lifelong follower of Thoroughbred racing.