02/05/2008 12:00AM

Pleasanton: From fair to fore?


When Bay Meadows presumably closes its doors for the last time this year, the face of racing in Northern California will change dramatically in 2009.

Golden Gate Fields, Northern California's only other privately owned track, is on record as saying it would be able to accommodate only 50 of Bay Meadows's approximate 100 race dates, leaving 50 possible dates for fair tracks, which are owned by the state or counties.

The Alameda County Fair at Pleasanton seems a logical choice to pick up the bulk of those dates based on its San Francisco Bay Area location and the fact it is the only other stabling option for horsemen not located at Golden Gate Fields.

The executive director of the California Authority of Racing Fairs, Chris Korby, says Golden Gate Fields and other Northern California fairs support Pleasanton as the most viable alternative to pick up the remaining Bay Meadows dates. The Thoroughbred Owners of California concur, said Drew Couto, president of the owners' group.

"We think of all the possible sites that Pleasanton makes the most sense," Couto said.

Right now, Pleasanton runs two weeks a year. Rick Pickering, CEO of the Alameda County Fair, says the fair is ready for expanded racing opportunities and has been working with a number of groups in preparation of Bay Meadows's closing. But he says nothing can be done until the industry "knows for certain about Bay Meadows."

Bay Meadows has left the door open a crack to continue racing if racetracks are granted slots or a share of casino revenue in the state.

The Pleasanton grandstand, barn area, and its racetrack, which dates back to 1858 and is the oldest one-mile track in the United States, would have to undergo major improvements to pick up the extra dates.

Pickering has met with Pleasanton city officials and staff and their Alameda County counterparts and has been encouraged by their response. He notes, though, that neither the city nor the county is likely to fund improvements.

Some financing could come through its California Authority of Racing Fairs affiliation, and Korby has testified before the Fairs, Horse Racing and Agriculture committee of the California State Board of Food and Agriculture about a possible role in helping to finance improvements at Pleasanton.

Pickering says a synthetic surface would have to be installed to meet the California Horse Racing Board's mandate that all tracks racing more than four consecutive weeks run on a synthetic track. Conversations have been held with Golden Gate Fields officials and Michael Dickinson about installing a Tapeta surface. Dickinson is the inventor of Tapeta, which was used at Golden Gate for the first time during its recently completed winter meeting and was well received by horsemen.

In addition, Pickering wants to create a turf course in the infield, which currently houses a golf course, much as the Santa Rosa Fair did two years ago.

Pickering calls the barn area Pleasanton's "top priority," since it would be Northern California's primary backup stabling facility. While there are foundations in place for additional barns, improvements have to be made to waste and water management facilities as well as more housing for grooms.

Pickering said he has met with several private groups, including Bay Meadows and Magna Entertainment, about the possibility of operating the Pleasanton track. Pickering, Korby, and Couto all pointed to Del Mar as a successful model of a privately run track located on state-owned land.