Editorial: Bay Meadows rides into sunset

And now comes the time for a fond and melancholy farewell to the Bay Meadows Race Course. The San Mateo racetrack galloped away into history Sunday, leaving only memories for those many who cared deeply about the 74-year-old venue.

In three-quarters of a century, virtually any professional sports facility ought to have collected a few unforgettable moments. But Bay Meadows accumulated far more than its share. From the immortal Seabiscuit to jockey Russell Baze’s all-time win record in 2006, Bay Meadows brought the Bay Area the greatest names in thoroughbred racing. Citation and Cigar raced at the track, Johnny Longden rode and Hall of Fame jockey Billy Shoemaker began his legendary career winning there in 1949.

Dedicated aficionados of Bay Meadows put in hundreds of hours of volunteer efforts in recent years in an attempt to save the historic site from being razed for a massive transit-oriented housing and commercial development. But inexorable economic forces ultimately doomed the racetrack’s survival.

Entrepreneurial genius William P. Kyne paid $1,000 an acre in 1934 for the old airfield he converted into Bay Meadows, after pushing through a ballot measure overturning California’s three-decade horse racing ban. That centrally located Peninsula land is now worth an estimated $2 million per acre.

With horse tracks long past their days of reigning among America’s dominant sports attractions, it became sadly inevitable that Bay Meadows would ultimately be displaced by a more profitable use of its land. Of course this inevitability does little to console the thousands of hard-core fans and the several hundred longtime track employees who spent their entire careers at Bay Meadows — sometimes going back two or even three generations.

It is also little consolation that most of the Bay Meadows racing dates will be picked up by Golden Gate racetrack on Berkeley’s industrial bayfront; that many of the veteran Bay Meadows employees will have jobs at Golden Gate; and that Bay Area racehorses can continue being stabled at Alameda County Fairgrounds in Pleasanton if there is insufficient room at Golden Gate.

All these physical factors can be replaced more or less. But the atmosphere and traditions that made Bay Meadows racing such an intrinsic part of Peninsula history are too beloved to ever find a substitute. For many, Bay Meadows has been their community, and they will miss it terribly.

As the thousands of new homeowners and businesses soon move onto what was once the racetrack, they should not forget the proud heritage they are supplanting. If the Bay Meadows Land Company is not already planning to do so, the city of San Mateo should ensure that one of the development’s promised parks feature a memorial worthy of the landmark racetrack.

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