08/18/2008 11:00PM

Sun sets on Bay Meadows

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SAN MATEO, Calif. - A pair of low-tech notices greeted a visitor to Bay Meadows last Sunday morning as a handful of horses galloped around the track and the crews of the early shift began their day.

The first, a flier taped to one of the columns fronting the grandstand entrance, read, "It's not too late to save Bay Meadows! Lawsuit will be heard Oct. 10, 2008. Your help and support is needed. Don't let the real estate developers get away with it."

The second, a boldly lettered placard attached to a chain link fence surrounding a patch of worn picnic grass at the north end of the grandstand, conveyed the more definitive message, "Deconstruction Staging Area. No Public Access."

No one needed to be reminded. Once the linchpin of Northern California Thoroughbred racing, Bay Meadows has been on the ropes for several years, an inevitable casualty of racing people selling out to real estate interests. It was going, going, and now it is gone, after Sunday's final program that squeezed out what was left of the anger, the sadness, and the lingering memories that will no longer have a home.

The building itself - soon to be deconstructed - has never been flashy and suffered more recently from improvements permanently deferred. The traditional grandstand offered stadium-style seats in both sunshine and shade, with two levels for food and wagers. The interior paddock was intimate and fan-friendly. The clubhouse side featured a glassed-in dining terrace with a Turf Club level, along with the popular Paddock Bar & Deli. At the rounded southern end of the building, above the administrative offices, a large, private dining room and patio played host to countless local dignitaries through the years.

"It's like an old Victorian house," said Sam Spear, the veteran publicist and host of a local cable racing show, as he hustled down a low-ceilinged hallway. "There are nooks and crannies everywhere, and people claimed them for their own."

When a racetrack is destroyed, though, more is lost than mere mortar and bricks. Think of it more like losing the family farm.

"People have deeply rooted lives here," observed Dr. David Seftel, the Bay Meadows track physician. "The loss is significant and should not be minimized."

The same could be said for the memories, shared on this final day by fans, employees, and horsemen alike.

Irene Ansell, who lied about her age to get a job as a ticket taker at Bay Meadows in 1945, said goodbye to a career of 44 years in the track money room.

"My favorite horse I ever saw here was El Lobo," she said. "They flew him up from Los Angeles in 1946, and he landed right there in the parking lot, then won the next day."

Bill Pryer, formerly with Pan Am, came West in the 1940s cutting sheet metal for the military and soon made Bay Meadows part of his routine.

"A whole lot's changed," Pryer said, sticking a mutuel ticket in his sock for luck. "Everything costs more now except a $2 ticket. Now they're closing the playground."

Dorcas Miller, a Bay Meadows regular for 40 years, nestled in a seat with a view of the paddock, walking ring, and finish line, and said there was no way she would settle for just coming to bet at the simulcast facility being built to replace live racing.

"I'd never do that," she said. "I've got to see the horses, or what's the point? I guess I'll just have to drive across the bridge to Golden Gate."

There will be an auction of physical assets on Aug. 23-25, and among the many Bay Meadows memories going on the block are the photographs and artwork adorning the walls, including the outsized Fred Stone installations, archival black and whites from 74 years of history, and the group shot that hangs near the saddling paddock of the participants in the first Bay Meadows International Jockeys Race on Nov.o21, 1980.

There is Greville Starkey with his armed draped over Lester Piggott's shoulder, standing alongside fellow Europeans Willie Carson, Joe Mercer, and Gianfranco Dettori, father of Frankie. Sandy Hawley was there, along with Laffit Pincay, Steve Cauthen, and local stars Roberto Gonzalez and Russell Baze. Neither Cauthen nor Baze appear to be in need of razors.

To their credit, the owners of the track will not be putting Jack Robinson up for bids. Robinson was killed riding at the Vallejo fairgrounds in 1973, and a bust commemorating his exemplary career has stood sentry in a corner of the Bay Meadows walking ring, with the base of the bronze decorated by the names of the winners of the Jack Robinson Memorial Jockey Award. The bronze will be moved to the racetrack in Pleasanton, where a to-be-determined number of the former Bay Meadows dates will be run.

Among the winners of the Robinson Award have been Alvaro Pineda, Juan Gonzalez, Merlin Volzke, Ron Warren, Russell Baze, and Tom Chapman, who traded his riding pants for oils and easels. At that particular moment, Chapman was on the ground floor of the grandstand near the paddock, selling his paintings and autographing the poster he had created especially for the Bay Meadows finale.

"Memories? Sure, I've got a few," Chapman said in polite understatement. "I'll never forget picking up the mount on Slew of Damascus and winning the Bay Meadows Handicap. Ron Hansen was riding him. That was the day he disappeared."

Hansen's body was later found at the edge of San Francisco Bay. Foul play was odds-on. Chapman went on to win four more stakes on Slew of Damascus, but not without effort.

"Not long after I picked him up, I went down on the first turn here and really messed up my ribcage," Chapman said. "I slept six weeks sitting up in a lounge chair, but I didn't miss much riding. And I wasn't going to miss him."

Chapman's poster, which was given away to each of the more than 9,000 fans in attendance, depicted five horses floating in action beneath the backdrop of the classic grandstand facade. On each of the horses, a rider is wearing famous silks seen in action at Bay Meadows, including the Dotsam Stable colors carried by John Henry. Darrel McHargue, a former national champion who has spent most of his steward's career in Northern California, let the poster trigger a Bay Meadows memory of his own.

"Yes, John Henry ran here," McHargue said. "I rode him and got him beat, by horse named Leonotis. Bobby Gonzalez rode him and reminded me of that the other day. I told him it's not a good idea to irritate a steward."

Gonzalez can take the chance. At 54, he is the dean of Northern California riders, nowhere near as successful as Hall of Famer Russell Baze but respected for more than 4,200 winners of his own.

"They should give the finish line to Baze," cracked Dennis Patterson, a jockey agent and assistant trainer whose family of racetrackers lives five minutes from the track. "And they should give the half-mile pole to Gonzalez, because he was always in front by the time they got there."

Gonzalez, suiting up for one more day at his favorite track, was sad to see it go and practical about the personal impact of racing as long as eight months of the year at Golden Gate Fields, on the dank and foggy east side of the bay.

"I've got a lot of broken bones," Gonzalez said, and started to name them. "I like this place to ride because the sun comes out. The room is warm and we get light from the windows. At Golden Gate, it can be cold in the morning and get colder. And the jocks' room is made of concrete."

Gonzalez was shut out on the final day, and Baze was at Emerald Downs, riding in the Longacres Mile. Of the veteran local trainers, Doug Utley won the seventh, Greg Gilchrist took the sixth, and Jerry Hollendorfer won the final race in Bay Meadows history when the filly You Lift Me Up won the Last Dance Stakes at 1 1/16 miles on the John Longden turf course.

Hollendorfer was at Del Mar, and Gilchrist was en route to Saratoga, where he will be running his top filly Indyanne this weekend. His maiden Gehrig, owned by the estate of Bay Meadows pioneer Harry Aleo, won the sixth.

"It came in with Harry and it's gone out with Harry," Gilchrist said. "That just seems right. But it really didn't matter much to me to be there today. The Bay Meadows I loved has been gone for some time."

True enough, but the size of the crowds on the closing three days belied the typically deserted stands.

"That's quite a marketing strategy - announce the track is closing," said Jack Liebau, Bay Meadows president, who ushered in the end for the Bay Meadows Land Co. "It's depressing. But it does say something about the state of the industry."

Horse owner Joanne Hird put it a little more on the money.

"I'd like to go up to these people and ask them where they've been," she said, gazing up at the packed stands, "because it's too late now."

And then it was over. David Hardiman blew "Auld Lang Syne" and "Taps." Michael Wrona gave the final call, and the Last Dance was run. Fans milled around, reluctant to leave, while employees wandered out onto the track, crying or trying hard not to.

"It's just so sad," said Jamie Ough, the simulcast host, as he held a handful of the main track and looked up at the emptying stands.

At that moment, the flock of Canadian geese making their temporary home in the infield took flight, some hundred strong, and swept over the walking ring and the grandstand heading toward the setting sun.