As Bay Meadows was facing the end of its 75-year run in 2008, Jon Rubin felt a call to action.
“We’ve got to get some film before this goes down,” Rubin recalled telling San Mateo County Historical Association officials.
Documenting the final months of the longest continually operated thoroughbred race track in California, the filmmaker parsed 100 hours of footage into his one-hour documentary “The Last Train from Bay Meadows.”
The film begins with the history of the track, its legendary horses and jockeys. Rubin goes on to document the lives affected by the track’s closing. “The subculture of the daily activity of the track, the people who were losing something very real, [was] a sad and poignant thing,” Rubin said.
The Sunset district resident grew up in Rochester, New York, following the trotters at Batavia Downs and the thoroughbreds at Finger Lakes.
After moving to San Francisco in 1975, Bay Meadows became a favorite hangout.
“The Bay Meadows family and culture are very rich,” Rubin said. “This was a film we had to make. Nobody made any money at all; it was a labor of love.”
The film showcases people such as track legend Boots O’Neal.
As a 10-year-old sneaking in via the track’s restroom window, O’Neal recounts being enthralled as he watched Seabiscuit, undefeated in his lifetime at Bay Meadows, win the Bay Meadows Handicap.
As an 84-year-old pari-mutuel clerk, O’Neal was at the track on its final day. Rubin was there as well, with a full film crew, including one of the five cameras in an open stall of the starting gate.
Jockey Russell Baze, who shattered Laffit Pincay’s Bay Meadows wins record, is featured prominently in the film.
Rubin also tells the story of Ralph Neeves, who in 1936 was the leading contender to win the meet’s jockey competition and a gold watch from Bing Crosby.
“Neeves had a spill, he was trampled and declared dead,” Rubin said.
The movie documents the happy ending to Neeves’ apparent demise after a doctor-friend in the county morgue ignored the toe tag and shot some adrenaline into the lifeless body of Neeves, who sprang to life and wound up racing the next day.
The stories, the memories, the people and the horses are what Rubin has preserved.
“What I kept thinking about Bay Meadows at the prospect of its closing is watching live animals competing against each other, no barrier between me and the sights and sounds of the animals, a real unsanitized, authentic thing, not on a computer, not fabricated, not on television,” Rubin said. “People are losing that visceral connection.”
The Last Train from Bay Meadows
WHAT: Documentary chronicling the final months of the longest continually operated thoroughbred race track in California
PREMIERE: Thursday, 7 p.m.
WHERE: Fox Theater, 2223 Broadway, Redwood City
FILMMAKER: Jon Rubin
TICKETS-INFO: (650) 299-0104, www.historysmc.org