12/23/2008 12:00AM

Track gets its shot as the only game in town


ALBANY, Calif. - Golden Gate Fields prepares to spring the gates on the busiest year in its history on Friday. The 2009 Northern California racing calendar begins when Golden Gate opens for a 118-day run that will carry it to June 14.

Since Bay Meadows closed earlier this year, Golden Gate has all of the region's non-fair racing dates to itself, and will also host a two-week meeting in August that traditionally was run at the Bay Meadows Fair.

Racing will return to Golden Gate for nearly one month beginning Sept. 9, and then the track will conduct its fall meet from Oct. 21 through Dec. 13.

"Keeping things fresh for our employees and fans will be very important," said general manager Robert Hartman. "We're excited and believe 2009 will be a good year."

Hartman said he believes that having racing at one major track could help attendance.

"In the past, there's been so much confusion about whether we were open or not," he said. "With all the date changes, there was no consistency. Consistency can be good."

The $75,000 Silveyville highlights Friday's card. Pass the Heat, third as the odds-on favorite in the Nov. 28 Forty Niner, will try to make amends. Also entered were Cover Magic, Swift Demand, My Summer Slew, Unusual Suspect, and Bamaha Breeze, who had a five-race winning streak snapped Sunday.

With Golden Gate Fields the only major track in Northern California, it will be able to offer a consistent stakes schedule that has been lacking because of frequent changes in racing dates between Golden Gate and Bay Meadows. For example, last year Golden Gate did not run the Grade 2 San Francisco Mile because Bay Meadows was running during the race's usual spring slot. The race returns this year on April 25.

The track will also inherit the Grade 3 El Camino Real Derby from Bay Meadows, running it on Feb. 14.

"We want to try to get a series of stakes races trainers can count on each year, like at Santa Anita," Hartman said.

Golden Gate will race four days a weeks in January and February, rather than the usual five days. Hartman said one of the positives of the four-day racing schedule is that Golden Gate was able to avoid cutting purses. He is hopeful that giving the horses an extra day of rest will result in bigger fields.

"We're not able to use the turf course in January and February, and without the turf it is a little tougher to run full five-day weeks," he said.

Hartman said several outfits from Washington and elsewhere have said they will keep more horses here because of the track's Tapeta surface.

He also is hoping that raising the minimum stakes purse to $75,000 will keep horses here that in past years might have gone to Southern California for stakes.

"We're trying to create a quality program," he said. "One of our challenges for 2009 is to keep better horses around because they can ship to Southern California and compete well there."

Golden Gate will continue its Dollar Day Sunday promotion. Parking, admission, programs, hot dogs, beer, and sodas are each only $1.

"Dollar Days have proven to be very popular with the fans, and attendance has continued to be very strong," said Hartman, who said the track plans a series of concerts in the spring.