Final Stand for Bay Meadows OK'd

Final Stand for Bay Meadows OK'd
Photo: Vassar Photo
Bay Meadows Race Course begins its final regular season meet next month, but questions remain about whether this is really the farewell stand for the 74-year-old track.

General manager Michael Ziegler, in charge of the track's marketing plans, said it best in discussing the on-again, off-again nature of the facility's future. He told the California Horse Racing Board on  Jan. 16 that despite a development project on the 83-acre Bay Area site set to begin later this year, he's approaching this 70-day race stand in the same way he's handled the others.

"We're operating this meet under the assumption that Bay Meadows isn't going anywhere," Ziegler said in response to a question about why there were no marketing tie-ins scheduled to  commemorate  the track's final season. "Until we know for certain, we're not going to react. I've been involved with Bay Meadows since 1995 and until the bulldozers are actually there, I'd prefer to not think any different."

The board, which earlier granted a waiver of its synthetic track mandate for one year to allow Bay Meadows to race on its conventional dirt main track in 2008, unanimously approved the racing association's application to conduct the meet, set to run Feb. 4 to May 11.

Asked about the possibility that Bay Meadows could seek a second exemption to the CHRB's all-weather racing surface requirement Bay Meadows president Jack Liebau responded, "There's always a chance. At this point, I would think not, but I've been wrong before."

There are a couple of variables, Liebau acknowledged. First, Bay Meadows Land Company, owner of Bay Meadows and Hollywood Park, has through its racetracks contributed a reported $4.3 million to a statewide campaign to overturn Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's agreements greatly expanding the number of slot machines that four of the largest Indian casino tribes can operate.

Terry Fancher, the wealthy real estate fund manager whose holdings include Bay Meadows Land, has made no secret of his desire to see an end to the tribes' monopoly over Las Vegas-style gaming in the state. Voters will decide the ballot measures challenging the governor's compacts Feb. 5.

Fancher's allies, which include organized labor and other casino tribes, have been picking up momentum in statewide polls and newspaper editorials and the measures appear to be very close. Were his side to prevail, Fancher could be encouraged to continue to try chipping away at the Indians' slot monopoly.

In addition, opponents of the track development plans have not yet decided whether to abandon a referendum challenging the city of San Mateo's approval of the project. In mid-December, a state appellate court ruled against the Friends of Bay Meadows, whose referendum barely failed to qualify last year, on challenges to decisions made by city and county election officials. But the group could still appeal to the California Supreme Court.

Liebau noted, "They would have to appeal and the California Supreme Court would have to agree to hear it, which I doubt would happen. But if it did, that certainly would stall things."

A spokesperson for the Friends of Bay Meadows could not be reached for comment.

The development project has been scaled back in recent months to include 1,000 to 1,250 residential units, 750,000 square feet of office space and 100,000 square feet of retail.

The end of this year's Bay Meadows meet would not bring the complete end to racing there. The track will host the San Mateo County Fair meet Aug. 6-18. After that, development preparations could begin. Fancher has given horsemen assurances that the facility will remain open for training and boarding of horses through Sept.  30 and possibly through the end of the year, depending on safety issues related to the track's demolition.

The CHRB, in its action Jan. 16, added an amendment to allow Bay Meadows to race its days in accordance with Southern California meet schedules. To start, Bay Meadows will be running at the same time as Santa Anita, which is operating a Thursday through Monday schedule this season. Hollywood Park, which has the traditional Wednesday through Sunday week, begins in late April.

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