02/12/2007 12:00AM

Hoping a reprieve is granted

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SAN MATEO, Calif. - An all-too-familiar question hovers over Wednesday's start of the 50-day Bay Meadows spring race meet.

Is this the final year of racing at the historic racetrack?

"I think, from our perspective, we are pursuing racing dates," said track president F. Jack Liebau. "We will seek an exemption from the California Horse Racing Board about having to install an artificial surface for 2008. If they do not give us an exemption, we will shut down. If they do deny us an exemption, the repercussions will be in their hands."

The Bay Meadows Land Co. owns the property on which the track is located and has long-term plans to develop the property. The Bay Meadows Racing Association runs racing at the track.

"We're sort of a two-headed animal with people in development and people in racing," Liebau said. "We in racing operate as if we are going to be here indefinitely. If we were shutting down, we'd cut down our marketing, and we're not doing that."

The CHRB has mandated the installation of a synthetic surface for all tracks running Thoroughbred meets that last four weeks or longer. Hollywood Park, also owned by the Bay Meadows Land Co., installed the state's first synthetic surface last fall. Del Mar is installing one, and Golden Gate Fields will install one this summer. Santa Anita is also supposed to install a synthetic surface this summer.

But for Bay Meadows, the cost of installing such a surface, including special drainage systems, is daunting.

"It's impractical to spend seven to eight million dollars," Liebau said.

Because Bay Meadows has not yet sought the exemption, the CHRB offered no comment on the situation other than to reiterate its mandate on synthetic surfaces.

Bay Meadows has installed sports grids in its main track, making the surface better during wet periods, and Liebau is hopeful the board would consider the sports grids to be similar to a synthetic surface.

Liebau is excited about March 10 and 11, when the track will hold the Grade 3, $200,000 El Camino Real Derby and the Grade 3, $100,000 Bay Meadows Breeders' Cup Sprint.

"We will have a free T-shirt promoting El Camino Real Derby Day, and a significant amount of our marketing budget will go to market that day," Liebau said.

Purses on overnight stakes are dropping from $55,000 to $50,000, and purses in several overnight categories have been adjusted.

"Our dates aren't quite as good as they were the previous year because of accommodations to Golden Gate to install its track," Liebau said. "We don't have enough big days, but we raised some overnight purses."