Never Say Die

By Morton Cathro -- Like Ralph Neves, the jockey who was pronounced dead after a spill, only to come back to life and ride there again, aging Bay Meadows, the grand dame of California racetracks, is proving once more that reports of her demise are, as Mark Twain once observed, greatly exaggerated.

"Several additional years of racing are very likely," Terry Fancher, president of the company planning eventual commercial development of the 83 historic acres, recently said.

As a sentimental old horseplayer, I was pleased to read this, for it was at Bay Meadows in 1938 that I, as a teenager, first laid eyes on a Thoroughbred, and where, the following year, I witnessed probably the most suspenseful race in 65-plus years of following the sport of commoners and kings.

The four-mile Thornton Stakes, along with the man who presented it, comes to mind now as Bay Meadows embarks on yet another autumn season of racing on borrowed time. The Thornton was a revival of the taxing marathons that once defined horse racing in America and produced the stayers that have all but disappeared in this era of speed.

On that memorable Armistice Day of Nov. 11, 1939, carrying 107 pounds and the added burden of this poor kid's $4 on his nose, a resolute gelding named Anhelation had dropped 40 lengths behind after the first mile. Yet slowly, almost imperceptibly, he inched forward, urged on by the growing crescendo from 25,000 imploring fans. He got up in the final strides to prevail in a desperate three-horse blanket finish in a spellbinding 7:17 3/5, rewarding his backers with a $9.20 mutuel and memories to last a lifetime.

The Thornton Stakes was but one of many innovations introduced at Bay Meadows by the track's colorful and imaginative founder, William Patrick Kyne, the forgotten father of modern-day racing in California. A former bookie and would-be-priest-turned sports promotor, it was Kyne--who as a boy sold newspapers outside the old Emeryville track in Oakland--who organized and financed the 1933 ballot initiative that returned legalized racing to the state.

After the election, rebellious citizens of San Francisco's Ingleside District sent millionaire dentist Dr. Charles H. Strub skedaddling south to Arcadia--they wanted no part of his proposed racetrack in their neighborhood. But in suburban San Mateo, Bill Kyne was welcomed with open arms and title to the abandoned Curtiss-Wright Airfield there.

He broke ground for Bay Meadows April 8, 1934, opened the inaugural meeting on Nov. 3--some eight weeks prior to Strub's Santa Anita debut--and the rest is horse racing history. According to track archives, Kyne and Bay Meadows introduced major innovations that changed the face of racing across America. Among them:

The first electric, enclosed-stall starting gate (invented by Clay Puett with Kyne's financial help), used universally today in various adaptations. First track in the West to employ the photo-finish camera and the electric totalizator board. First U.S. track to install a hotbox in the jockeys' quarters.

Additionally, this writer recalls the October day in 1945 when his favorite radio singing cowboy, Stuart Hamblen, shipped the stakes horse El Lobo north from Los Angeles to Bay Meadows by air--the first such transport in racing history. Eleven years later, the first-ever planeload of foreign stakes horses arrived from abroad. Kyne arranged both flights.

Kyne's imagination was exceeded only by his generosity. "Whether it was for a loan or a job, he couldn't turn down anyone," recalls Jack Menges, retired handicapper for the Oakland Tribune and last remaining denizen of the Meadows press box in the Kyne era.

A gambler who would bet on anything, Kyne once wagered $1,000 that a retired harness racehorse named Blackie, reputedly a good swimmer, couldn't swim the Golden Gate. But on Oct. 1, 1938, Blackie did, covering the roughly eight furlongs across turbulent San Francisco Bay in 23 minutes and 15 seconds.

It took a lot of stamina for Blackie to swim the 'Gate; it took a lot of stamina for the horses to go the distance in the Thornton. Today, as her eventual successor, Dixon Downs, languishes on the drawing boards, one hopes the matriarch of California racetracks summons the same never-say-die stamina to hold on to life for many seasons to come.

Retired newspaperman Morton Cathro of Moraga, Calif., contributes to The Blood-Horse and other racing publications.