01/31/2005 12:00AM

Cooperation, but still competition


ALBANY, Calif. - There will be a retro look to northern California racing in 2005.

With the decision of the Bay Meadows racetrack property-owner, Bay Meadows Land Company, to conduct racing by itself rather than lease the track to Magna Entertainment, northern California's two private tracks will once again operate as separate entities. When Bay Meadows opens its meet Wednesday, it will be the first time since 2000, when Magna began operating both Bay Meadows and Golden Gate, that the two tracks will be run under separate management.

Management of both tracks say they will cooperate with each other and, indeed, the racing offices and marketing departments have been putting their heads together. But with these tracks dividing the bulk of northern California's dates and vying for the same horses and horseplayers - albeit at different times - conflict is inevitable.

Bay Meadows moved aggressively with its placement of the Grade 3, $125,000 Stanford Breeders' Cup, a new stakes to be run on March 19. A 1 1/16-mile turf race for older runners, the Stanford is being run at the same time the Golden Gate Handicap has been in past years. Northern California's racing schedule was retooled this year, and as a result, Bay Meadows - rather than Golden Gate - will be running in March. By grading the race, the Graded Stakes Committee essentially ruled that the Stanford is taking the place of the Golden Gate Handicap on the schedule, even though Golden Gate Fields plans to run the Golden Gate Handicap during its meeting that begins in May.

Why did Bay Meadows create a stakes with nearly the same conditions as the Golden Gate Handicap at the same time that race used to be run? Because, said the Bay Meadows racing secretary, Tom Doutrich, a turf stakes for older horses at that time fit in with the rest of the Bay Meadows stakes schedule, and fans and horsemen were used to such a race being run in March.

The move leaves Golden Gate Fields without a grade for its signature race, and if it hasn't caused hard feelings, it has at least left the Magna management at Golden Gate Fields disappointed that Bay Meadows is stealing some of its thunder, and scrambling to regain graded status for its race.

Perhaps adding insult to injury, Bay Meadows for the fifth year will run another major race that had been conducted at Golden Gate until 2001, the San Francisco Breeders' Cup Mile (April 23), which is northern California's only Grade 2 race.

"Before Magna began operating both tracks up here, Golden Gate Fields copyrighted the names San Francisco Mile and Golden Gate Handicap because they were so important to the track," Tunney said.

Competition between the tracks is nothing new. Back in 1994, when Golden Gate was owned by Ladbroke and Bay Meadows by the Bay Meadows Operating Company, Golden Gate structured its claiming prices above those at Bay Meadows, forcing owners and trainers to refigure where their horses belonged.

Cooperation on matters such as claiming prices is better today because of the heavy influence of the Thoroughbred Owners of California, the state's owners' group. In addition, management at both tracks understands there is benefit to working together in this era of short fields and shrinking fan base.

"Cooperation is the result of mutual interest," said F. Jack Liebau, president of the Bay Meadows Racing Association and former head of California operations for Magna. "That's especially the case when things are tough. And they're tough.

"One thing everybody has to realize is how goes Golden Gate Fields goes Bay Meadows. Both of us rely upon that fan base and must do everything to maintain and grow that fan base. We don't compete head-to-head."

One example of this cooperation is that Golden Gate Fields, which ended its meet Sunday, has been training a new paymaster of purses for Bay Meadows to ensure a smooth transition between the tracks for horsemen.

Both have implemented measures for the testing of milkshakes and have increased backside camera surveillance.

Doutrich, the Bay Meadows racing secretary, the Golden Gate Fields racing secretary, Sean Greely, and the California Authority of Racing Fairs are working together to build a year-round racing program that will attract more horses to the region. Doutrich convinced Bay Meadows management and the Thoroughbred Owners of California to increase the stakes minimum, which had dropped from $60,000 to $50,000 over the past few years, back up to $55,000.

Liebau said that in some ways Bay Meadows will benefit from being an independent racetrack rather than part of the huge Magna chain of tracks. For one thing, Bay Meadows will become available on the Youbet.com and Television Games Network account-wagering platforms instead of being exclusively tied to Magna's XpressBet. Account wagering, or advance-deposit wagering, increased 24 percent in the region last year and accounted for 10 percent of the northern California handle. Liebau is hopeful Bay Meadows will see a marked increase in account wagering this year.

One advantage of being an independent racetrack, Liebau said, is that management has to worry about the success of only one track, not an entire corporation.

"One thing that's different is we aren't spread over a number of tracks," Liebau said. "We'll be concentrating on Bay Meadows. This management team has more of a proprietary interest than when it worked for a corporation involved with many tracks."

As for the future of Bay Meadows, its owner continues to explore the possibility of using some of the valuable San Mateo land where the track sits for purposes other than racing. Will the Bay Meadows Land Company turn the track into an office park? Not in the near future, said Liebau, who pointed out that there have been rumors the track would discontinue racing since the early 1990's.

At a glance:

RACING SCHEDULE: 71 days - Feb. 2-May 8

POST TIME: 12:45 p.m. Feb. 2-April 18; 1:05 p.m. April 21-May 8; 7:20 p.m. Feb. 4, April 8, April 15, April 22, April 29; 12:15 p.m. Feb. 5, Feb. 21, March 5, April 9; 11:15 a.m. Feb. 6.

HIGHLIGHTS: Feb. 5, $100,000 Grade 3 Seabiscuit Breeders' Cup Handicap; March 12, $200,000 Grade 3 El Camino Real Derby; March 19, $125,000 Grade 3 Stanford Breeders' Cup Handicap; April 23, Grade 2 San Francisco Breeders' Cup Mile

ADMISSIONS: $3 grandstand; $6 club house; $10 turf club (weekdays); $15 turf club (Friday evenings, Saturdays, Sundays and holidays)

PARKING: $4 general; $7 preferred, valet, park & lock

LOCATION: 2600 S. Delaware St., San Mateo, CA

PHONE: (650) 574-7223

INTERNET: www.baymeadows.com