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Bay Meadows nears finish

Submitted by News Desk on Wed, 08/06/2008 - 10:00pm

The venerable Bay Meadows racetrack, which drove modern horse racing in California with many innovations and forever changed the city of San Mateo, has begun its final days of horse racing.

A 10-day meet coinciding with the San Mateo County Fair kicked off Wednesday and runs through Aug. 17. The fair itself begins Friday.

After several years of planning, redevelopment of the 73-year-old venue is poised to begin by the end of the year. The final day at Bay Meadows will close the book on more than seven decades of thoroughbred racing.

Founded by William Kyne in 1934 after he lobbied state voters to legitimize horse racing and betting in California, Bay Meadows put San Mateo on the map with national racing fans and inspired pride from San Francisco to San Jose.

"The track was the only major sports venue on the Peninsula, and it was a special place where people went out to see their favorite horses,'' said Larry Stumes, perhaps the Bay Area's most respected horse racing scribe.

For Stumes and other racing fanatics, watching thoroughbreds gallop on the hallowed grounds of Bay Meadows was something more than a spectator sport. It was a ritual, and a way of life.

"We sat way up on the top of the grandstand, and there were so many people there. There was that beautiful track and it was the greatest sport," said Stumes, who made his first visit to Bay Meadows with his uncle as a teenager.

Waxing poetic over Bay Meadows' grandeur became second nature not only for racing fans but also for generations of Peninsula residents.

Parents and grandparents took their children and grandchildren to watch the horses walk before jockeys mounted them. Some folks even took the kids to the betting windows to place their first bets. Their money down, they walked up into the grandstand and beheld the historic oval itself.

Those memories won't fade, but what remains of the place that inspired them will soon be demolished, making room for progress in the form of retail, housing and commercial development.

Bay Meadows has put millions of tax dollars into city coffers, but the land where it has stood for three-quarters of a century has become more valuable as a redevelopment site than as a racing venue, said Jack Liebau, president of the track.

"Over the years it became obvious that the land had a higher and better use than racing," Liebau said. "Racing became less and less profitable as a business."

Now that the track is set to be torn down, the physical reminders of many historical moments — such as Seabiscuit winning the Bay Meadows Handicap for two straight years in 1937 and 1938 — will be lost.

Seabiscuit's two victories at Bay Meadows came at the beginning of his rise to national stardom. The bent-legged thoroughbred went on to inspire struggling working people throughout America during the Great Depression.

A man and his dream

Seabiscuit's triumph and other glorious moments at Bay Meadows would never have happened without William Kyne.

Born in San Francisco's "South of the Slot" area, now known as South of Market, Kyne had ambitions of becoming a priest. Instead, his father's sudden death while working as a longshoreman meant Kyne had to work to support his family. His toil led him to the more earthly pursuits of horse racing and gambling.

Because thoroughbred racing was illegal at the time in California, Kyne's passion for racing took him as far north as Montana and as far south as Tijuana, Mexico.

But eventually he came back to California to fulfill his dream.

He successfully lobbied the state Legislature to allow horse racing and pari-mutuel betting. He promised lawmakers up to $1 million in state taxes from gambling. Horse racing eventually brought in millions of dollars a year in state money.

Thoroughbred racing in California continued to grow in popularity from the 1940s through the 1970s. A lot of that growth came from racing in the lucrative Southern California market.

Many called Kyne a fool for establishing Bay Meadows in San Mateo and turning his back on the growing Los Angeles market. But to his critics, Kyne always replied, "I'm happy with Bay Meadows and I'm home in San Francisco."

Kyne built the famous track on the site of the old Curtis-Wright Airport, developing 105 acres of land to house the grandstand, the main track and parking lot. He also developed more than 70 adjacent acres to sculpt a training track and stable area. He christened the site Bay Meadows because it was once a meadow and it sat close to the Bay.

Bay Meadows was embraced in San Mateo, as city founders realized the community would benefit from the tax revenue and gain national recognition. An inaugural dinner was held at the Ben Franklin Hotel in downtown San Mateo, and many dignitaries came to celebrate the start of racing.

Opening day arrived on Nov. 3, 1934. A special train brought customers in from Los Angeles. Newspapers reported that as many as 25,000 turned out for the event.

The horse racing business boomed in San Mateo until the United States entered World War II, which forced racetracks all over the country to close. But Kyne negotiated permission to operate the track in order to benefit the war effort, arranging to donate 92 percent of the profits to support the military campaign.

Business was steady throughout the war years and boomed once again in the late 1940s. The Southern Pacific Railroad even provided a train dubbed "The Bay Meadows Express" that took racing fans from San Francisco directly to the track.

Later, the racecourse became a magnet for major stars such as Bing Crosby, Clark Gable and Joe DiMaggio. It also made its mark as a laboratory for the introduction of technology into horse racing.

Bay Meadows was the first track to have photo finishes, and it also sported the first electronic tote board. Bay Meadows racing enthusiasts also witnessed the first electronic starting gate and the debut of night racing.

Kyne ushered in these changes with characteristic showmanship. When he died in 1956, his wife Dorothy assumed the role of general manager for several years before leaving the stewardship of the track to other managers.

Though the track's glory years undoubtedly came on Kyne's watch, some of the bigger controversies at Bay Meadows also occurred during his reign.

Back in the early 1940s, a number of the track's jockeys were linked to a large-scale gambling ring that was accused of rigging races. Another controversy surfaced in the late '40s, when the track tried to expand an airport that had been operating on the property.

The City Council held a raucous meeting in 1949 to address the issue. Some 600 people came to debate the expansion.

According to one local newspaper account, the hearing led an airplane to buzz City Hall during the proceedings. One woman fainted at the meeting, prompting the mayor to ask, "Is there a doctor in the house?" Ultimately, the City Council rejected the airport expansion, and the tiny existing airport eventually ceased operation.

But the uproar over the airport and the gambling scandal that rocked the track were minor stumbles during decades of spirited racing, runaway business and the track's evolving legend.

Great jockeys and horses consistently raced at Bay Meadows. That's because racing schedules were split between Northern California and Southern California. When the horses were running at Bay Meadows, they weren't running in Southern California, meaning that all eyes were on San Mateo during the racing season.

The beginning of a long slide

The Southern California racing season gradually grew longer as racing there became more profitable. By the 1970s, the heart of the state's thoroughbred racing industry had shifted to the Los Angeles market.

In the early 1980s, an effort to bolster horse racing in Northern California led some businessmen to propose moving Bay Meadows across the bridge to Hayward. The plan fizzled, however, and the track hobbled through the decade, still turning a profit but now a shadow of its former self.

The advent of simulcast, or off-track, betting in the mid-1980s helped boost sagging revenue but reduced the crowds even further.

"Simulcast has been a savior, but it also hastened the demise of tracks like Bay Meadows, because attendance continued to fall," said Morton Cathrow, a Bay Area horse racing historian.

By the 1990s, the slow and steady decline of Bay Meadows led investors to seriously consider selling the track and developing the land.

When Liebau, the track's general manager, came to Bay Meadows in 1992, he knew the development of the property was going to happen sooner or later.

"We're glad for every year we've had there over the last 15 years, but the closure was inevitable," Liebau said.

Throughout the 1990s, Bay Meadows stockholders jockeyed for control of the track.

Eventually, the California Jockey Club sold the entire property to Paine Webber and Co., which spent $20 million in 1998 to build prefabricated barns in the Bay Meadows infield in order to commercially develop what was once the track's backstretch.

That area now houses several businesses, including Whole Foods, Gold's Gym and the headquarters of mutual fund giant Franklin Templeton Investments. The track and surrounding property is now owned by Stockbridge Capital Group, which does business as Bay Meadows Land Co.

The commercial and residential development east of the track, known as Bay Meadows Phase I, has served as a model for the new urban design and transit-oriented development that is planned for the heart of the racetrack.

The city of San Mateo has worked with residents and developers for the better part of a decade to shape the transformation of the track and build popular support for remaking a local landmark into a veritable mini-city.

Bay Meadows Phase II, which is scheduled for groundbreaking this fall, could include as many as 1,200 apartments and condominiums, 750,000 square feet of office space, 100,000 square feet of stores and restaurants and 15 acres of parks.

Those big-time development plans have met with some opposition from both residents and members of the racing community.

Thousands of residents signed a petition aimed at stopping the development through a popular referendum. But a judge ruled last year that not enough people had signed the document.

Now, as the track enters into its final two weeks of racing, the sun is finally setting over the grandstand and long shadows are blanketing what remains of the legendary dirt oval.

For Robert "Boots" O'Neil, 84, the oldest living para-mutuel betting clerk at the track, it's something worth mourning.

"This place has had a great run, but I still fell terrible about it closing," O'Neill said. "When the death knell hits and they tear it down, I'm not going to be around to watch it. That would be like watching your uncle die."

Staff Writer Michael Manekin contributed to this report.