08/06/2008 12:00AM

Final days at Bay Meadows


On May 11 of this year, at the end of an otherwise unremarkable Sunday program, the employees of Bay Meadows Racetrack gathered in the winner's circle for cocktails and photographs.

"That was kind of our goodbye," said Richard Lewis, who has been the Bay Meadows director of racing since 2004. "We knew we'd be back for this meet at the fair. But it was pretty clear there would be no second chance."

None at all, and that's a pity. The 74-year-old racetrack that could not be closed by World War II is now in its last days of operation as a live venue. Lewis carded the final race of the final program of the San Mateo County Fair on Sunday, Aug. 17 as the $50,000 Last Dance, a 1 1/16-mile race for 3-year-old fillies on the doomed grass course named for Johnny Longden.

"It's something you can never really prepare for," Lewis said. "Something is going to happen one of those last couple days, some memory will come back or someone you'll see, and you'll think, 'This just isn't right for this place to be closing down.' "

Bay Meadows was purchased by a privately held real-estate development firm in 1997, which means the clock has been ticking on its closure for more than a decade. Now that the end has come, the state's racing industry leaders are faced with a realignment of racing dates in Northern California among Golden Gate Fields (owned by Magna) and the county fair facilities in Pleasanton and Santa Rosa.

"This is perhaps the first hammer to drop as we recognize that racing has to restructure itself," said Richard Shapiro, chairman of the California Horse Racing Board. "We have just too much racing in California. When you look at the diminishing quality, the field sizes, the reduction in number of mares bred each year in California, to believe that we should maintain two year-round circuits, north and south, just does not make sense."

The blood between the racing board and Bay Meadows ownership was sour over the past two years as track management waffled over its closing date and refused to spend money on a synthetic racing surface whose days would be numbered. That is now ancient history, along with such hallmarks of the Bay Meadows story as Citation, Seabiscuit, Bill Shoemaker, and Russell Baze.

"It's really a sad event," Shapiro added. "If there are some kind of closing ceremonies, I'm either not aware of them or haven't been invited. But on the other hand, ceremony isn't going to bring it back."

Times have been unquestionably tough for Northern California horsemen, and uncertainty prevails. But someone forgot to deliver the memo to the good folks at the Santa Rosa Fairgrounds that horse racing is on the slide. At the conclusion of the fair's two-week meeting on Monday, both attendance and handle figures were positive enough to mark a departure from this summer's fair circuit trends.

At the same time, the good vibes of the meet added fuel to the smoldering idea that an extra week or two of racing at Santa Rosa can be justified, if backed by a strong marketing commitment. Golden Gate and Pleasanton are in line to reap the bulk of the Bay Meadows vacuum. But a track like Santa Rosa, with its standard one-mile oval and a turf course in place, can tap into some unique local demographics.

In addition to his soon disappearing Bay Meadows duties, Richard Lewis just completed his first tour of duty as Santa Rosa director of racing. Lewis, 55, was a Thoroughbred trainer in the Bay Area for more than 25 years before he went to the front side. But, as he put it, "Going back to training is not at the top of my list right now."

Lewis can certainly be proud of his first Santa Rosa meet, which wrapped up with a special appearance by local hero Cavonnier on Sunday for the running of the Cavonnier Juvenile Stakes and then an "Owner for a Day" promotion on Monday that took fans inside the ropes.

Cavonnier, for those who need a refresher, is the dark brown gelding bred and raced by Barbara Walter and her late husband, Robert, and trained by Bob Baffert to win the 1996 Santa Anita Derby and then lose the Kentucky Derby by less than any horse in the history of the race. To call the margin a nose is being generous.

Now 15 and healthy as an oak, Cavonnier spends 364 days a year ambling around the hilly pastures of Vine Hill Ranch where he was raised, just a few miles from Santa Rosa, usually shadowed by the latest crop of young colts begging the old man for insight. Then comes Cavonnier day at the fair.

"That's when he gets his yearly bath," Barbara Walter said with a laugh. "Cav loves it, and he loves the attention. He absolutely lives for the reaction of the fans."

Cavonnier's is another of the many notable names that will be buried in the dust of the Bay Meadows wrecking ball. Before hitting the big time, he won his only two races at Bay Meadows - the 1995 King Glorious and the 1996 El Camino Real Derby.

Fortunately, Cavonnier also romped in a maiden race at Santa Rosa, in August of '95. Those hoof prints figure to be around for awhile.