06/19/2007 11:00PM

Golden Gate closer to approval for new surface

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Golden Gate Fields took a step forward on Tuesday in its plan to install a synthetic surface this summer. The city of Albany advised the track that the project was exempt from having to meet the environmental requirements contained in the California Environmental Quality Act, and the track's request for a grading permit was approved by the city.

The decision leaves Golden Gate awaiting a permit from the Albany planning department before it can begin construction on the synthetic Tapeta surface.

"This was a very critical piece of the puzzle," said Golden Gate Fields general manager Robert Hartman.

But the track may not be out of the woods yet. The environmental exemption can be appealed over the next 14 days, according to Jeff Bond, the planning and building manager for Albany, and the environmental groups Citizens for East Shore Parks and the Sierra Club have expressed concerns about the project.

If the environmental exemption is appealed and Golden Gate is unable to begin construction on the track by Aug. 1, the project will be difficult to complete by the start of the fall meet, Nov. 7, Hartman said. Earlier Tuesday, Richard Shapiro, the board chairman, said the board would be "inclined" to grant Golden Gate a one-year waiver on installing the synthetic surface if it couldn't complete the job this year. The board has mandated that all Thoroughbred tracks in the state that run for four consecutive weeks must install a synthetic surface by 2008.

Hartman said that Golden Gate Fields and its parent company, Magna Entertainment, want to avoid having to seek an exemption for 2008.

Northern California's other major track, Bay Meadows, is expected to be granted a one-year exemption from installing a synthetic surface at next month's board meeting. On Tuesday the board did not take action on the exemption because of a procedural problem.

On Wednesday, F. Jack Liebau, president of the Bay Meadows Racing Association, said the track is working to improve its racing surface. Liebau said fine sand, an organic binding compound, and polypropylene fibers would be added to the track. Earlier this month, Mick Peterson, who Liebau said is one of the nation's leading experts on track surface, conducted tests on the Bay Meadows surface. He reported that the track is in "exceptionally good condition," but suggested that Bay Meadows soften the surface, Liebau said.