Bay Meadows races into history

Bay Meadows’ grandstands throbbed with the roar of 10,000 fans Sunday, the clobber of horse hooves hitting dirt and the emotion of one of the Bay Area’s fine slices of history becoming just that — history.

A few hundred yards away, in the dim barns that house hundreds of horses and many of their keepers, the emotion was also thick, if more subdued.

The closure of the 74-year-old racetrack has been a hard pill to swallow for its thousands of regular patrons, but is a pill that will completely transform the lives of hundreds of people who have both worked and lived at the track for years — some even for decades.

They, along with the horses, must all be gone from the 83-acre track by October 12, to make way for hundreds of homes, office buildings, parks and stores.

The tradeoff is unavoidable and necessary for progress, say the plan’s supporters. But detractors consistently point to the loss of a deep tradition horseracing in San Mateo County, and the track’s unique place in history as the home of Seabiscuit’s best runs, the first photo-finish, and the race that made Russell Baze the winningest jockey ever.

Barring the unlikely success of a long-shot, last-ditch lawsuit to keep the track open, that history will make way for the future. Starting this week, the owners of the racetrack will begin auctioning off everything that could possibly have a price tag attached.

Among those most affected by the razing of the track will be the small village of horse groomers who live and work at the track. Bay Meadows has about 750 stalls for horses and about 150 rooms for their groomers — who usually live two or three to a room, said Pat Larkin, a security guard who has worked at the stable for 18 years.

Some of these groomers live in rooms adjoining the barns, while others live in nearby dormitories. Together, they make up a “little city”, complete with chaplain, a medical trailer and a part-time fire squad, Larkin said.

The dormitories are small and whitewashed cinderblock rooms; some have been lived in so long by the same family that they have full-grown gardens in the patch of dirt in front.

Joe Hernandez, an exercise rider for horses, lives in one of the dormitories. His small, windowless room was covered in framed photographs of his favorite horses and jockeys, some autographed.

Asked how he’s been doing, he smiled broadly.

“Hangin’ in there like a lion on a zebra,” he joked.

But when asked what he planned to do next, he became more serious.

“I don’t know,” he said, shaking his head.

kworth@sfexaminer.com

What’s next

… for Bay Meadows:

Bay Meadows Corp. will begin auctioning parts of the track this week.

The 83-acres of race track, parking lot, barns and dormitories will be emptied by Oct. 12.

They will be replaced by more than 1,000 housing units, more than 100,000 square feet of retail, 940,000 square feet of office space and 18 acres of parks.

… for the track’s employees:

Most have been offered jobs at Golden Gate Fields in Albany.

Some to be moved to new simulcast center in the county’s Event Center adjacent to current track.

Trainers and groomers may find other work at Golden Gate Fields or at the Alameda County Fairgrounds in Pleasanton .

Bay Area NewsBay MeadowsLocalSan Mateo

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