08/05/2008 12:00AM

The beginning of the end for Bay Meadows


The final two-week race meeting at Bay Meadows begins Wednesday, when the San Mateo County Fair meeting - better known as the Bay Meadows Fair - begins its 10-day run. The last day of racing at Bay Meadows, which opened in 1934, will be Aug. 17, confirmed F. Jack Liebau, president of the Bay Meadows Racing Association.

"I would say this is it," said Liebau, who has run Bay Meadows since 1993. "I don't have another Hail Mary left."

The owner of the San Mateo, Calif., racetrack, the Bay Meadows Land Co., has made it clear for several years that it wanted to tear down the track and develop the land on which it sits for office and residential use.

Liebau said two things doomed Bay Meadows: a lack of slot machines at California racetracks and the failure to achieve compacts with the state's Indian tribes to share gaming revenues.

"We lasted a lot longer than people might have believed," Liebau said. "I think we did a good job. We gave it a hell of a run. It just wasn't good enough."

Bay Meadows will simulcast races on Aug. 18, and two days later simulcast wagering will be switched to the San Mateo Expo Center next to Bay Meadows.

Liebau said all horses would be out of the barn area by Oct. 15, though he did not have an exact date for when demolition of the grandstand would begin for development of the property.

The closure of the track means the end of a magnificent era of horse racing. Liebau said that the track is finishing a DVD of all-time track highlights that it will give employees at a farewell party, and that even he was amazed at the all-star list of Eclipse champions and Hall of Famers who had run at the track, including Native Diver, Majestic Prince, Noor, Citation, A.P. Indy, Lady's Secret, and Cigar.

Bay Meadows, which opened Nov. 3, 1934, was the first track to install a photo-finish camera and, in 1939, the first track to use an electric all-enclosed starting gate.

It was the track where Bill Shoemaker first began galloping horses and the track where Russell Baze surpassed Laffit Pincay Jr.'s record for most career victories by a jockey in North America.

Baze, who won 40 jockey titles and more races at Bay Meadows than any other rider, is not expected to ride at the meet. He is currently in England to compete in an international jockey competition and plans to ride at Emerald Downs in the Longacres Mile on Aug. 17 after his return from Europe.

"I don't know of anyone who isn't disappointed Bay Meadows is closing," Baze said before his departure.

The closing of Bay Meadows will alter the face of racing in Northern California. Golden Gate Fields will try to acquire 50 of the roughly 100 days of racing that were traditionally held at Bay Meadows. The other 50 will likely go to Pleasanton, home of the Alameda County Fair and Northern California's only other full-time stabling facility. In order to meet a California Horse Racing Board mandate, Pleasanton will have to install a synthetic track before it can begin racing on the additional dates. Track officials said they are working to have the synthetic track installed before racing in 2010.

Bay Meadows has traditionally produced the highest ontrack and simulcast handles in Northern California, but without live racing there, simulcast numbers at the San Mateo Expo Center are expected to fall. The facility there will have fewer than one-fifth the number of betting terminals that Bay Meadows offered.

Fan interest in the Bay Meadows Fair meet is high, especially for closing day. The turf club is already sold out for that day. Liebau said that 8,000 turf club reservations have already been made for the fair meet.

"We've never had a demand like that," he said, noting the irony that the closing of the track had become a marketing tool.

The track is also planning a variety of events, including a mystery mutuel voucher promotion and a commemorative poster giveaway.