New California Horse Racing Board member John Harris.

New California Horse Racing Board member John Harris.


California Board Approves Golden Gate License

With new member John Harris aboard, the California Horse Racing Board raced down to the wire and granted Golden Gate Fields its license approval just in time for the Albany track to open for business on schedule.

The CHRB approved Golden Gate's license Tuesday afternoon on the eve of the Bay-side track's fall-winter season, which starts today. Golden Gate's request had been delayed twice because the CHRB lacked a quorum. Since last week's CHRB meeting was cancelled, Gov. Gray Davis appointed Harris, a Coalinga rancher and longtime Thoroughbred breeder, as a fourth member to the seven-person board, allowing the CHRB to resume official business.

Harris made his CHRB debut Tuesday by telephone. Due to the short notice of this special meeting, the proceedings were held via teleconference at the CHRB's Sacramento headquarters, a first for this board.

Completion of some $5 million in improvements to Golden Gate's barn area sealed the license approval. The CHRB demanded that major makeover when it granted Frank Stronach and his Magna Entertainment permission to buy Golden Gate. The track is also installing a chute for seven-furlong races. In addition, the CHRB granted Magna's request to make over the Northern California racing calendar for 2001. Magna bought Golden Gate Fields in December 1999 and is closing its acquisition of Bay Meadows in San Mateo.

This is something that's always made sense, but separate ownership blocked any changes, said Jack Liebau, who is now in charge of Magna's California tracks. "It took a long time for some people to see the light," added Liebau, who expects the change to draw more horses to both Bay tracks.

Golden Gate, which originally planned to close this new meet Jan. 15, will take over Bay Meadows' winter-spring dates and stay open until April 1, 2001. In the process, Golden Gate will also receive Bay Meadows' major spring stakes, including Northern California's stepping stone to the Triple Crown -- the El Camino Real Derby.

Run in early March, the El Camino Real has become the Bay route to the Kentucky Derby and other spring classics. Charismatic, 1999 Derby and Preakness winner, used his second-place finish in this Grade III stakes as his springboard to Kentucky. In just 19 runnings, the 1 1/16-mile race has produced four other Preakness winners: Gate Dancer (1984), Tank's Prospect (1985), Snow Chief (1986) and Tabasco Cat (1994), who also won the Belmont Stakes. Derby runners-up Cavonnier and Casual Lies ran in the El Camino Real, too.

In return, Bay Meadows will be the new home of Golden Gate's California Derby and other late-spring stakes, said Liebau. Bay Meadows will split its meeting between spring and fall, wrapped around the annual summer fair circuit.

Owners, trainers and track employees all supported the calendar switch, said Liebau and CHRB officials. "The horse owners and trainers I've talked with said they are looking forward to not having to move twice," said commissioner Marie Moretti. Said Harris, "I've followed the northern date situation for some time, and this is a much better system. It's one of the pluses of common ownership."