ALBANY -- After 70 years of hosting the likes of triple-crown winner Citation, Lost In the Fog, Silky Sullivan and other racing luminaries, the Bay Area's premier horse track could be headed for the home stretch.

The grandstand-shaking cheers of fans may become a distant memory, lost to the quiet murmur of scientists and lab workers working the corridors of a new campus there for Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory.

Golden Gate Fields, which opened in 1941 on 140 acres of shoreline in Albany and Berkeley and has thrilled decades of race fans, is among six sites being considered as a site for a second lab campus. A winner is expected to be chosen by month's end.

But if racing goes away in Albany, closing California's only near year-round track north of Bakersfield, it could drastically change Northern California racing. Golden Gate's owners say they would seek another large track site if theirs is chosen for the lab, but one scenario would see Golden Gate's racing days divvied up among existing tracks -- adding racing days and a new nonfair racing circuit at fairgrounds like Alameda County's in Pleasanton.

But horse trainers and owners fear the loss of the Bay Area's marquee track would be a huge blow to an industry already dealing with a shrinking fan base, declining revenue and competition from out-of-state tracks that allow slot machines.


Advertisement

It would be the second time since 2008, when San Mateo's Bay Meadows closed, that the Bay Area has lost a major racetrack to new development.

"Bay Meadows was making money, but there was more money by developing the property," said Rick Pickering, CEO of the Alameda County Fairgrounds. "Golden Gate, I am assuming there is more money. It's valuable land. How do you walk away from that?"

The lab announced in January it was seeking proposals for a campus with up to 2 million square feet that would consolidate satellites in Oakland, Emeryville, Walnut Creek and Berkeley. Golden Gate Fields and sites in Oakland, Richmond, Alameda, Emeryville and Berkeley were chosen as finalists from 21 proposals the lab received.

"It would be devastating" if Golden Gate Fields were redeveloped, said Gloria Hayes, Northern California vice president of the California Thoroughbred Trainers. "It would be another agricultural minus that we don't need."

Despite picking up 18 additional racing days over the past year, Golden Gate Fields has seen its total handle -- the amount wagered -- increase by less than 1 percent, rising from about $545.6 million in 2009 to $546.2 million in 2010. From 2005 to 2010, the average daily handle dropped from about $4.34 million to $3.14 million in 2010.

Statewide, betting has dropped, too. From 2009 to 2010, the amount dropped by $486 million, according to figures from the California Horse Racing Board.

Stronach Group, which owns Golden Gate Fields and other tracks around the country, has said several times that if the track is selected for the lab site, a new track will be located elsewhere in Northern California.

"The Stronach group is committed to racing in Northern California," said Joe Morris, general manager of Golden Gate Fields. "If this place is chosen, there will be a delay (until) they break ground, and in that time we will find a place."

One proposal could be a windfall for the Alameda County Fairgrounds in Pleasanton, which boasts the country's oldest one-mile horse racing track, built in 1858.

It would divide racing days allotted to Golden Gate Fields among Northern California's six racing fairs, allowing each a second session of racing in addition to its annual fair run. Golden Gate Fields had 174 racing days in 2010 and 157 this year. The track has been awarded 154 days for the 2012 season.

There were 13 days of racing at this year's Alameda County Fair, and the fair has been awarded the same number for 2012.

"If that (lab) deal comes about, and Golden Gate Fields is the successful property ... there are options for more racing at (Pleasanton)," Pickering said. "It would look like a circuit."

The Pleasanton fairgrounds also benefitted when Bay Meadows closed by becoming the auxiliary training ground for Golden Gate Fields -- more than 400 extra horses were sent to be trained and housed in the Pleasanton barns.

Some say added racing sessions would help renew luster and excitement to a racing scene that has grown stale after the Bay Meadows closure.

A circuit could allow Alameda County, Sonoma County, Cal Expo and the other racing fairs to each pick up an additional two to four weeks of racing per year and give operators a chance to build excitement with more season opening and closing celebrations and venue changes.

It has been rumored the Stronach Group is looking at other existing horse racing tracks in Northern California to house more racing.

"Six or seven years ago, Frank Stronach visited the Alameda County Fair during the fair and met with folks and kicked the tires," Pickering said. "There was no formal negotiations, but he was extremely complimentary of the product here."

Not everyone is in favor of a Bay Area circuit scene and would rather see the lab select land in Richmond that it already owns instead of taking the track.

Keith Pronske, the Thoroughbred Owners of California's Northern California vice chairman, and his wife have been breeding and raising horses since 1997 and fear if Golden Gate is chosen for the lab site, it would be detrimental to the industry, taking away hundreds of jobs.

Golden Gate has 350 full- and part-time workers and an additional 500 to 600 workers employed in the barn areas who care for nearly 1,200 horses.

"There is the fair option, but it would be very different without Golden Gate Fields," Pronske said. "It would have a financial impact and not just on owners but everyone. If you don't have a marquee track like Golden Gate in Northern California, racing will go on, just on a smaller scale."

Before the Stronach Group proposed plans to house the lab's second campus, the land had been discussed for redevelopment at least four times.

Given the interest in Golden Gate Fields, Albany paid $600,000 to an Oakland consulting group in 2008 to create a plan on how to redevelop it, said City Manager Beth Pollard, The Voices to Vision report featured community feedback from meetings on how residents would like the land developed.

The Albany track provides a combined $1.7 million to the city and school district. City coffers get about $1 million annually, which includes revenue from property taxes and betting.

Pollard noted the wagering revenue has steadily declined and that a decade ago it brought about $500,000 to the city, but is now from $300,00 to $400,000.

Any proposal to develop the Albany land would have to be approved by voters.

Pollard said the Stronach Group has said it would pursue a vote in the summer of 2012.

"(Golden Gate's) future is uncertain, given what appears to be the declining horse racing," said Pollard. "Interest could turn around, but the trend over the last several years has shown the interest is in decline."

Contact Robert Jordan at 925-847-2184. Follow him at Twitter.com/robjordan127.

GOLDEN GATE FIELDs: By the numbers
42,500: Estimated number of races run since opening in 1941; the site was used by the Navy during World War II
$546.2 million: Total handle (amount wagered) in 2010
350: Full- and part-time workers at the track; another 500 to 600 workers tend to about 1,200 horses in the barn areas
$1.7 million: Revenue the track provides for the city of Albany and the Albany Unified School District

Lab site finalists
  • The choice: Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory is considering locations for a second campus to house up to 2 million square feet to consolidate satellite sites in Oakland, Emeryville, Walnut Creek and Berkeley. A winner will be chosen this month.
  • The Finalists: Alameda Point at the former Naval Station in Alameda; Berkeley Aquatic Park West in West Berkeley; Brooklyn Basin in Oakland; land in Emeryville/Berkeley at Seventh Street and Ashby Avenue that is occupied by the lab; Golden Gate Fields in Albany and Berkeley; and Richmond Field Station (land owned by the University of California) in Richmond.
    b Online: For a look at each of the six proposals, including the video presentation, go to www.lbl.gov/community/second-campus/index.html.