Riders up for Bay Meadows in ’08

A final 2008 racing season for Bay Meadows was rather firmly promised by the California Horse Racing Board at its June meeting, but that ruling is now official and the San Mateo racetrack’s approximately 500 employees can breathe easily again. At 9:30 a.m. July 3, an emergency teleconference meeting tallied a 5-0 board vote granting Bay Meadows a one-year racing waiver.

Bay Meadows will not be required to install a safer synthetic-surface track costing up to $10 million. The racetrack management had refused to invest the money, since it presumably has only one more year left before construction begins to convert the 83.5-acre site into a high-density housing-office-retail development.

When the racing commissioners denied the 73-year-old racetrack a waiver in March, Bay Meadows was scheduled to close permanently this November. This would not only have put 500 people out of work, it would also have caused a direct loss of $1 million in 2008 taxes for San Mateo County and the city of San Mateo, plus loss of an estimated $25 million in total economic benefits for the Bay Area.

As severity of this fiscal hit became widely recognized, regional objections grew increasingly loud. State Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco/San Mateo, spearheaded intense political pressure to make the board change its vote.

Yee went so far as to introduce a Senate resolution demanding the board chairman’s resignation. He even blocked the board’s $10.8 million budget for next year. These reprisals undoubtedly got the commissioners’ attention, although the board’s stated reason for reversing the earlier denial was to avoid excessive disruption of next year’s horse racing in Northern California.

The strong argument in support of replacing traditional dirt tracks is that the new synthetic surfaces are proven safer for racehorses, although some veteran horsemen dispute the statistics. Hollywood Park in Southern California, which has the same owners as Bay Meadows, installed a synthetic track surface last year. During the previous 2005 season, seven horses had died there of injuries. But in 2006 no horses got killed.

The Examiner is pleased that the hundreds of Bay Meadows employees and their families will not be forced to disrupt their lives early and without fair notification. It is also good that the Peninsula economy will suffer less of a revenue gap until the mixed-use project takes the place of the racetrack. But the unpleasant fact is that 25 horses were fatally injured on Bay Meadows’ dirt track during the last race season.

For this reason, we are especially glad to learn that Bay Meadows recently added softer polymer surfacing to help cover its running track. Early reactions from trainers and jockeys have been encouraging. We want safe thoroughbred racing to bring credit to the final season of historic Bay Meadows.

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