05/04/2005 11:00PM

Meeting ends with a bang

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SAN MATEO, Calif. - Bay Meadows officials expect much higher than usual attendance and handle on Kentucky Derby Day.

Last year's live handle at Bay Meadows on Derby Day was $2,378,616 and handle for all of northern California, including out-of-state wagering, was $9,793,535, up 4 percent from the previous year.

Derby Day doings will provide a big sendoff for the meet. Under a new scheduling plan for northern California racetracks, Bay Meadows opened on Feb. 2 this year and concludes its spring meet Sunday. Purses were raised 5 percent during the meet. Attendance on Friday nights has averaged 5,626, an increase of 24 percent over the 2004 spring meeting. The final Friday night of racing drew 6,818, the largest Friday night attendance since 1995.

"It really energizes the place," Bay Meadows Racing Association president Jack Liebau said of the bigger Friday crowds.

Group sales have perked up as well, up 20 percent over last year's Bay Meadows meet. More than 1,000 fans attended as part of different groups last Sunday.

The track got sponsorship for one stakes race and also for a starter handicap series that will return in the fall.

The Bay Meadows Racing Association, which took over running the track from Magna Entertainment this year, has worked hard to plant seeds for revived interest in racing. Liebau calls the efforts "building blocks."

One area of improvement has been in food quality, with a new caterer. Another is a program geared to newcomers to the track that begins with the Bay Meadows website and includes specified areas ontrack for newcomers as well as weekly seminars for senior citizens.

The track has begun mini-promotions, including daily specials for pie and coffee after the fifth race.

One the down side, a wet winter and early trainer departures to Washington for the Emerald Downs meeting led to 29 percent of all races going with fields of five runners or less, up 1 percent from 2004.