02/04/2008 12:00AM

Final meet for historic Bay Meadows

Vassar Photography
In 2006 at Bay Meadows, Russell Baze won his 9,531st race, eclipsing Laffit Pincay Jr. as North America+s top winning rider.

SAN MATEO, Calif. - Last summer it looked as if Bay Meadows would close down at the end of 2007 and the property would be turned into condominiums and office buildings. But when the California Horse Racing Board said it would allow Bay Meadows to run a 2008 meeting without having to spend millions to convert its dirt track into a synthetic surface, the track decided to race for one more meeting.

That meeting begins Wednesday.

Bay Meadows will run for 70 days through May 11. F. Jack Liebau, president of the Bay Meadows Racing Association, acknowledges that this looks like the last major meeting for the 74-year-old track.

"There is no certainty in the world," said Liebau, "but we're heading down the homestretch. In all probability, this will be our last regular meet."

The track will conduct horse racing one more time after this meet during the San Mateo County Fair on Aug. 6-18, a meeting that typically draws lower-level horses and does not offer any stakes.

The Bay Meadows Land Co. owns the 83 acres where Bay Meadows is located, and plans to develop the land into a mixed-use residential and commercial neighborhood. With legal and entitlement hurdles having been cleared, development is expected to start this year, Liebau said.

Liebau said the Bay Meadows barn area would remain open until the end of the year in accordance with an agreement with the CHRB and horsemen, "so they'll have time to figure out what their alternative plans are."

Bay Meadows and Hollywood Park, which is also owned by the Bay Meadows Land Company, led the fight against Indian casino compacts that were on the California primary ballot Tuesday. If the compacts are voted down and some type of agreement is reached between Indians and racetracks, Bay Meadows could reconsider closing.

Looking at the upcoming meet, Liebau said, "Bay Meadows will not be operated as a lame duck. Our marketing will be intense. We want to make sure we go out with a bang." He said the closing of the track would be used as a marketing angle, hoping to attract fans to "come out for what may be the last time."

Originally a lawyer, Liebau came to Bay Meadows in 1992. He said that "it's very difficult" to be facing what appears to be the final year of the track's existence.

"This has turned out to be my second career, and I enjoyed it more than my first," said Liebau.

Last July, the CHRB agreed to exempt Bay Meadows from its order that all major California tracks install a synthetic surface. Bay Meadows races on a traditional dirt surface, and the track has done substantial work on it since the spring meet of 2007, when more than two dozen horses died of racing or training injuries. Last summer, Bay Meadows called in an expert on track safety, Mick Peterson of the University of Maine, and he concluded that the track might have been too hard. So on his advice, Bay Meadows added sports grids, or synthetic fibers, and other material to stabilize the track and make it safer. Injuries and deaths declined sharply during the fall meet, and since then more fibers and material have been added to the track, Liebau said.

Bay Meadows opened on Nov. 3, 1934, under the leadership of Bill Kyne. It is the longest-running track in California in continuous operation, remaining open even during World War II.

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

Among the stars that ran at the track were Kentucky Derby winner Majestic Prince and California legend Native Diver, both of whom won their maidens there. Determine and Charismatic both used Bay Meadows races as preps before winning the Kentucky Derby.

Other stars to have raced at Bay Meadows include Seabiscuit, Citation, Round Table, John Henry, Noor, Cigar, Coal Town, Lady's Secret, and Lost in the Fog.

Bill Shoemaker began his career galloping horses at Bay Meadows in 1948 and earned his first stakes victory there in 1949.

In 2006 at Bay Meadows, jockey Russell Baze scored his 9,531st victory, surpassing Laffit Pincay Jr.'s all-time win record.

* TVG will have live coverage of opening day at Bay Meadows, and will air onsite reports from the track on weekends during the meeting.