08/27/2002 11:00PM

Future bright as fall meet opens

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SAN MATEO, Calif. - The 2002 fall meeting at Bay Meadows was supposed to be the end of an era in California racing. The oldest major racetrack in the state, Bay Meadows was supposed to close when the meet ends.

The track's lease was due to expire on Dec. 31, 2002, and plans were under way to tear down the historic grandstand and the new infield stables and turn the land into a space for office buildings.

However the 50-day meeting, which begins Friday and runs through Nov. 3, almost surely will not be the final race meeting.

"An extension is still being worked on," Bay Meadows president and general manager F. Jack Liebau said. "We're confident the lease will be renewed or extended on a year-to-year basis."

Asked if he feared any possible snags in negotiations might force the closing of Bay Meadows after the meeting, Liebau said, "I don't think that will happen."

The decline in the real estate market along the San Francisco Peninsula is the primary reason that a renewal or extension is likely. That decline might also lead to negotiations for Magna to purchase the property.

"I think the opportunity to purchase property would be welcomed," Liebau said. "At the present time, there is no indication the owner [USB Warburg] is interested in selling the property."

Liebau said he is cautiously optimistic about the upcoming meet.

"Certainly, I'm hopeful we'll have a successful meet," he said. "There are clouds on the horizon. The biggest cloud is solving the worker's comp issue. The industry is working to try to get that problem solved. There is enabling legislation on the governor's desk."

The horse population in northern California remains down from years past, but racing secretary Greg Brent said he expects Bay Meadows's 900-stall barn area to be full by mid-September. Currently, there are 780 horses on the grounds, and 775 at Golden Gate Fields, although many are "not close to racing yet," Brent said. There are also horses based at Pleasanton.

Some Washington trainers are sending horses south even before the mid-September closing of Emerald Downs, Brent said, while many others are awaiting a solution to the worker's comp issue.

Liebau hopes purse increases at the bottom and top levels could lead to fuller fields.

"A lot of attention has been given to raising our lower levels from $7,000 to $9,000," Liebau said. "But we've also made changes across the board. We've added $5,000 to overnight stakes, which would make them worth $78,000 to Cal-breds.

"The purse program and stakes schedule have had a great deal of input from owners and trainers, and [it] is a consensus of all these people. You need to keep owners of lower-level horses in business."

The schedule contains only four stakes with purses of $100,000 or more, including the $200,000 Bay Meadows Breeders' Cup Handicap on Sept. 21.

"We don't disregard higher-caliber races, but we want to use purse money to benefit northern California horsemen," Liebau said. "It's a balancing act."

Another problem facing Bay Meadows this fall is the discontinuation of train service directly to the track.

"That could have an impact," Liebau said. "Hopefully, we'll negate it with shuttle service from the [nearby] Hillsdale station."

The track will continue its Friday's Alive promotion of evening racing and $1 admission for students, $1 hot dogs and sodas, and $2 beers beginning on Sept. 20 - and free grandstand admission to seniors 62 and older on Thursdays.

The three-round Handicapper's Challenge begins opening weekend, with two mystery mutuel voucher promotions and various giveaways, including a Seabiscuit bobble-head doll on Oct. 12.