10/18/2009 11:00PM

Golden Gate cuts stakes to 5 at new meet


ALBANY, Calif. - Tough economic times lead to difficult decisions, and Golden Gate Fields has opted to cut back its stakes schedule as it begins a 42-day meet Wednesday.

The meet, which closes Dec. 20, will offer only five stakes races. Each of the stakes will carry a $50,000 purse.

Three of the races - the Nov. 21 Golden Nugget at six furlongs, the Dec. 5 Corte Madera for fillies at one mile, and the Dec. 12 Gold Rush at one mile - are for 2-year-olds. The only stakes for older fillies and mares is Saturday's Pacific Heights at 1 1/16 miles on the turf. The only stakes for males is the Nov. 27 San Quentin at 1 1/16 miles.

There were nine stakes at last year's fall meet, including the $200,000 Grade 3 All America for older male horses.

Five runners are listed as definite for the Pacific Heights: Alpine Yodel, Croxie, Novato, Windover, and You Lift Me Up. Catsalot, Paprika Red, and Quiet Advice are probable.

"Purse revenues are going down across the country," Golden Gate Fields general manager Robert Hartman said.

Just as cities, counties, and states are facing difficult choices of reduced services, Golden Gate Fields, following many other tracks, faces unpleasant options: cut overnight purses on races that make up the bulk of the cards or reduce the stakes program.

"We have kept overnight purses pretty much steady and took the majority of cuts from the stakes program," Hartman said.

The decision, Hartman said, affects a smaller percentage of trainers and horses although he admits there is a fear that if fewer races are available for the better horses on the grounds, more of the better horses will leave.

"We don't want that to happen," he said, "but something had to be cut.

"We met with the Thoroughbred Owners of California and California Thoroughbred Trainers and showed them the numbers," said Hartman, who added that the decision was "to try to keep the blue-collar guys in business."

Hartman also pointed to the difficulty in filling stakes races and to the large percentage of stakes money siphoned off by Southern California-based trainers.

Yet Northern California trainers such as Jerry Hollendorfer and Greg Gilchrist point not only to the limited number of stakes opportunities for their good runners but also to fewer options in allowance races.

Hartman hopes the decision will lead to larger fields and more wagering.

With the usual influx of horses who were stabled at Emerald Downs during the summer, the first two days of racing attracted good numbers of horses.

Ricky Frazier, the leading jockey at Emerald Downs, will once again spend his winter here, and Leslie Mawing, seriously injured this spring, is back in action.

While there are concerns about the future for Golden Gate Fields because its owner, Magna Entertainment Corp., is in bankruptcy, Hartman said there was less nervousness among employees about whether the track would be sold or remain part of a Magna operation.

"Our goal is to keep Golden Gate profitable," he said. "We need to focus on being as profitable as we can, whether we are with Magna or we are sold. If the track is not profitable, it will not be around for a long time.

"We feel a heavy burden being the last major track in Northern California. If we can't keep going, there will be a cutback in Northern California racing."

Golden Gate ran for nearly nine straight months last year, including fairs dates, and is working with the California Association of Racing Fairs and the California Horse Racing Board to develop its 2010 calendar.

"One advantage to a longer meets is our marketing dollars build upon each other," Hartman said. Golden Gate's special dollar days on Sundays grew in popularity as the meet went on last fall and spring.

Hartman said that while many tracks have cut their marketing budgets, Golden Gate's has remained the same.

In addition to the dollar days, Golden Gate will hand out hooded sweatshirts - "the highest quality item we've ever given away," Hartman said - on Saturday.