09/14/2008 11:00PM

Long season is seen as opportunity


ALBANY, Calif. - With Bay Meadows now officially closed, Golden Gate Fields is the only major racetrack in Northern California. Golden Gate begins a 67-day fall meet Wednesday, and the track will be the home of Thoroughbred racing through June, pending approval of the 2009 racing schedule by the California Horse Racing Board, which meets Thursday in Pomona.

Among the details to be worked out on the 2009 calendar are whether Golden Gate will race some four-day weeks and whether some of Bay Meadows's former dates will be assigned to the Alameda County Fair at Pleasanton but run at Golden Gate until the Pleasanton track is able to install a synthetic surface.

Recognizing its new role and its new opportunities as the only major racetrack in the San Francisco Bay Area, Golden Gate is trying to attract fans from both sides of the bay. To encourage fans to use public transportation, the track is providing free shuttles to and from the North Berkeley Bay Area Rapid Transit station.

"We know many fans used public transportation to get to Bay Meadows, and now they can use public transportation with Cal Train and BART to come to Golden Gate Fields," Golden Gate general manager Robert Hartman said.

Hartman said Golden Gate has undertaken more than $1 million worth of improvements since its spring meet ended in June, including turf club improvements and a new owner-trainer lounge. The track is installing an additional 1,200 television screens and providing every NFL game each Sunday, in effect becoming the largest sports bar in California. It also has a variety of promotional events planned.

Although racing revenues have been affected by the economy and the high cost of gasoline, Hartman is hopeful that Golden Gate can fight recent trends.

"Product is one of the key elements," Hartman said.

With 1,325 horses stabled at Golden Gate and another 684 at Pleasanton, Hartman hopes that the small fields that plagued fair racing during the summer can be turned around.

Since installing its Tapeta surface for the 2007-08 season, Golden Gate has averaged 8.2 runners per race. With the current number of horses stabled at Golden Gate and Pleasanton plus a promised influx of horses from Emerald Downs and Canada, Hartman is confident the track will continue to average eight-plus runners per race.

"We believe that we will be able to fill more high-level allowance and claiming races," he said. "That will help local trainers who have had to look to Southern California during the summer to find races."

Additional higher-level races could help increase entries in lower-level races by helping to avoid the overuse and depletion of runners in those categories.

"We need a good complement of quality in races as well as quantity," Hartman said.

Mindful of the fact that it may conduct 180 days of racing, Golden Gate has scheduled only nine stakes during its fall meet, highlighted by the Grade 3 All American Breeders' Cup on Sept. 27. The $200,000, 1 1/8-mile race is timed as a possible prep for the Breeders' Cup Classic or Dirt Mile, and racing secretary Sean Greely hopes to attract some Eastern runners who might want a prep on an artificial surface before the Breeders' Cup one month later at Santa Anita.

"One of the downsides of a 180-day meet is we have to space out stakes," Hartman said.

Golden Gate will not run another stakes race after the All American until Oct. 18 and also will not card a stakes race between Oct. 26 and Nov.o22.

Hartman said that the track would offer high-level allowance races to allow trainers to keep their top runners sharp.

He said the track would bring back the Grade 2 San Francisco Mile next spring and would run the Grade 3 El Camino Real Derby, which had been a fixture at Bay Meadows.

The track hopes to pick up Bay Meadows's other graded races, and Greely appeared before the Graded Stakes Committee to emphasize Golden Gate's desire to increase the number of graded stakes it runs.

Hartman also said that horses would no longer be allowed to wear shoes with toe grabs on the Tapeta surface. Horses also will be allowed to train and race without shoes, and Golden Gate has created horse paths in the barn area so that horses no longer have to walk on cement.