Historic Bay Meadows race track to close

May 17th, 2007

The historic Bay Meadows racetrack in San Mateo, CA, a fixture in the San Fransisco Bay area for 73 years, will cease operations November 4, at the conclusion of its fall season.

Track officials had sought a two-year injunction from a California Horse Racing Board mandate that the state’s five major tracks replace their dirt ovals with artificial surfaces, considered safer for horses. The upgrades would have cost the financially struggling track $7 million to $10 million and in light of impending commercial and residential redevelopment of the site were not deemed financially viable.

“For racing in California, this is a day of infamy,” said Bay Meadows president Jack Liebau. “Racing in Northern California will never exist as it has in the past. There will be a severe fallout from this. I’m stunned.”

Bay Meadows is home to the longest-running stakes race in California, the Bay Meadows Handicap, twice captured by legendary Seabiscuit, ridden by George Woolf. Riding great Bill Shoemaker began his riding career at the track, and on December 1, 2006, Russell Baze became Thoroughbred racing’s winningest jockey, when he rode to his 9,531th victory, aboard Butterfly Belle in Bay Meadow’s fourth race.

Over the years, Bay Meadows, which opened in 1934, has been the site of many “firsts” for racing. The electric starting gate now being used at most major racetracks in the United States was first used at the the track, which was also the first in California to use the totalizator (tote board) system and photo finish camera, and the first to present the daily double and night racing.

In 2005, San Mateo City Council members approved a proposal to develop 1,250 homes and nearly 1.5 million square feet of office and retail space on the present site of the track. A group that opposes the development has filed a suit against the city and county of San Mateo. But even if the development were halted, it is unlikely the racetrack could survive without adding casino gambling, an unpopular alternative to the proposed upscale community.

There are four major Thoroughbred racetracks in California besides Bay Meadows – Del Mar, Santa Anita, Hollywood Park and Golden Gate Fields.