09/30/2008 11:00PM

Piece of history about to crumble


Dennis Patterson thought he might be able to hang tough until the bitter end, but it was just too much to bear. He shipped his horses out of his Bay Meadows barn about a week ago, even though training will continue until Oct. 8 in the shadow of demolition crews hard at work gutting the venerable grandstand.

"It was bad enough going to the funeral," Patterson said. "I didn't need to stick around to watch them dissect the body."

The expulsion of horses and their handlers marks the final act of the Bay Meadows drama, at least as it pertains to its impact on the California racing community. There will be those who come back for the fireworks, when the grandstand is imploded and surrenders once and for all, much to the delight of the nightly news. By then, though, all traces of the rich Bay Meadows history will be long gone.

The owners of Bay Meadows are preparing to padlock what remains of the backstretch just as the California industry is being celebrated on Sunday at Santa Anita in the 19th edition of the California Cup. The idea is to put on display the best and brightest of the West Coast breed, although the elimination of a key playing field for that breed tends to lace the day with bitter coincidence.

Patterson and his fellow displaced brethren can be forgiven if they don't go all warm and fuzzy over Cal Cup Day this time around. For one thing, training for the handful of runners still at Bay Meadows after the official final day of racing, last Aug. 17, has been pretty much an exercise in guerilla horsemanship.

"They fenced off the front side so we couldn't go over there anymore to watch horses train, and they had to set up the clocker on top of the tote board," Patterson said.

"In the grandstand itself, they've taken out all the seats, and you can see a couple holes in the back of the building, so the demolition has kind of started," he went on. "It's still safe to train, but they're not making it easy. They're trying to discourage us. Even before 10 o'clock in the morning, they've been starting their destruction, sandblasting and making a lot of noise."

Patterson, 73, began his career in Southern California working for trainers like Paul Meredith and Robert Wheeler. He can drop the names of such contemporaries as Jerry Fanning when he was a groom, Bruce Headley when he was an exercise rider, Ron McAnally when he drove for his uncle Reggie Cornell.

Patterson got his start as a trainer with a $200 castoff, spent seven years at Agua Caliente, and bounced around the Northwest until he finally settled in San Mateo and commenced to make a name as a respected horseman and raise a family - two miles from the racetrack he called his second home. That was 44 years ago.

Soon, the Bay Meadows site will be replaced by office buildings and a park.

"Yep, that's right," Patterson said. "And affordable housing, too, now that they got rid of that bad element . . . all those degenerate racetrackers."

Patterson comes by his sardonic wit honestly. After all, he's a published author. His short story "Tack Talk" won an honorable mention in a fiction contest sponsored by the Thoroughbred Times, and was included last year in an anthology called "Thoroughbred Tales."

"Tack Talk" captures the vagabond lifestyle of the traditional racetracker, as seen from the vantage point of the various pieces of equipment around the typical stable. Patterson's tack actually talks, and at first the device seems too cute by half, from the literary genre of "The Little Toaster." Eventually, though, the reader is won over, and is learning things no one ever bothered to explain about the nuts and bolts of the professional racing stable. Take this observation from a veteran halter:

"Let me tell you about a nameplate. Know what happens to a halter with a nameplate? When the horse is finished, you're finished. End up in a bag in the corner of the tack room. Nobody wants to wear a halter with someone else's name on it."

The tack has moved again, now imbued with stories of the former Bay Meadows. Despite the upheaval, Patterson is off to a good start at what will turn out to be a nine-month season at Golden Gate Fields, the only remaining major track in Northern California. Through Wednesday, Patterson had won with 2 of 7 starters, along with 3 seconds.

"Must be the sympathy vote," he said. "Or some kind of old-timers deal.

"It's getting harder for someone my age to move with the herd, but I've still got the passion to train," Patterson added. "People asked if I was going to retire. I'm not going to retire."

Instead, Patterson will commute, every morning, from San Mateo across the bridge to Albany, where Golden Gate sits on a spit of land jutting into the east San Francisco Bay.

"I've been meeting a lot of new friends every morning," Patterson said. "Lot of them giving me the hand wave and telling me I'm No. 1. At least, that's what I think they're trying to tell me."