01/11/2002 12:00AM

Liebau: Bay Meadows to go on beyond 2002

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ALBANY, Calif. - The year 2002 was supposed to be the end of an era. Bay Meadows, the oldest racetrack in northern California, was expected to close its doors with racing either at a new track in Dixon, Calif., or at Golden Gate year-round.

But F. Jack Liebau, the president of Bay Meadows and Golden Gate Fields in northern California and the leader of Magna Entertainment's racing interests in California, believes racing will continue at Bay Meadows, which is located in San Mateo, beyond 2002.

The Bay Meadows property is owned by real estate brokerage USB, and the agreement for Magna to race there runs through Dec. 31, 2002. "I would think that is going to be extended because of the real estate market that exists on the peninsula," Liebau said.

Bay Meadows is located on some of the most valuable property in the San Francisco Bay area. But with the decline of the dot.com industry, office space is no longer at a premium along the peninsula heading to Silicon Valley. So the track land is not as valuable for office space as it was a few years ago.

Magna itself has attempted to buy the land the racetrack is located on, but Liebau said, "Our attempts weren't successful. I don't think price was a factor."

Liebau declined to say if Magna might make another offer.

Meanwhile, although Magna has purchased land in a small town near Sacramento about one hour from Golden Gate Fields, its plans to build a new racetrack there are on hold.

The hottest issue in California racing remains the status of phone betting, which is about to become legal in the state. Magna has filed an application to win approval as a telephone wagering hub for California, and Liebau said Magna hope its service would be "No. 1 in California."

He predicted "some growing pains" in the initial year of phone betting and said that racetracks and horsemen "can't expect instantaneous results."

Magna and Television Games Network, which will compete for telephone customers in California, have been unable to reach an agreement that would allow bettors to wager on all in-state races on a single account.

Liebau said competition in phone betting would help consumers in such matters as lower transaction fees. "Only through competition is that possible," he said.

While phone betting could ultimately prove a boon for racetracks, Liebau's biggest concern in 2002 centers around competition from Indian gaming in California.

"I'm worried by the fact that Native Americans have a lot more slot machines than we were led to believe," he said.

He is also concerned about the possible location of an Indian casino in nearby San Pablo. "There was supposed to be no gaming in urban areas," he said. "It scares the bejeezus out of me that four miles away in the city of San Pablo there may be a casino and that [Oakland mayor] Jerry Brown is talking about a casino in Oakland."

All in all, Liebau is upbeat about the state of racing in northern California. "We're finishing stronger, at least in the north, than ever before," he said, looking at attendance and mutuel figures as well as field size for the current Golden Gate Fields meeting that began on Nov. 7.

"Trainers are entering horses. We have an upswing in field size up here. My sense is the horse population is about the same, although we may have a few more from Canada."

Liebau also believes racing will be good in Southern California throughout Santa Anita's meeting, which opened Dec. 26. "Oak Tree exceeded expectations," he said. "I'm more optimistic about 2002 than ever before."