It's a sleepy October Saturday at Golden Gate Fields, and the usual collection of horses and horsemen are working out on the main track, many cheerfully off-task. Sprinters bounce around like jumpers. Distance horses joyfully lope in the wrong direction. Old men and young women trade casual bilingual insults, while emaciated jockeys and fat trainers stand side by side conducting negotiations that end the moment you get within a furlong of them. Looking up, the sights and sounds of this Albany racetrack must be pretty much as they were back when it first opened in 1941. It's when you look down that you see something new.
The track itself has been transformed. The owners of Golden Gate Fields are betting $9 million that their latest and most dramatic renovation will save horses' lives, increase the number of them racing, and boost their sport's image and appeal. They are counting on a payoff measurable in increased patronage, bigger purses, and a place in sports consciousness beyond Derby Day. But if they're wrong, then perhaps Bay Area racing is headed down the homestretch.
General Manager Robert Hartman is standing by the big window with a view that begins at the track and extends all the way to the Berkeley hills. He and communication director Sam Spear are extolling the virtues of their new synthetic track surface, which is being prepared for November racing. They're following the action down at ground level — where the ground is no longer level. It slopes gently to the rail, which separates the new track from the smaller grass track inside it. Drainage pipes are being buried below ground, covered by layers of rock, porous asphalt, and finally, the surface itself, a wax-coated mixture of sand, rubber, and hard plastic fibers.
Tapeta, pronounced Ta-PEET-ah, is one of a series of synthetic surfaces being trotted out by tracks across the country. "It is like the artificial turf ... at Cal's Memorial Stadium; it reduces the impact of pressure on the stride," Hartman explains. "It's the right thing to do. The new track will save lives."
Hartman's industry hopes that new surfaces such as Tapeta — and others with names like Polytrack and Cushion Track — will limit the number of catastrophic injuries and the gruesome spectacle of on-site breakdowns and death. Several high-profile calamities have hurt horse racing's image while destroying some of the sport's top performers. Most recently, the 2006 Kentucky Derby champion, Barbaro, broke his right leg in front of a large TV audience while trying to take the Preakness stakes. As Barbaro convalesced painfully and unsuccessfully, the coverage of his battle overwhelmed the news of horse racing's Super Bowl, the Breeder's Cup. The Cup itself has been plagued by on-track fatalities. Even racing's last big crowd pleaser, the Seabiscuit saga, resurrected other tales from the sport's past, not all of them happy. Consider the story of Ruffian, a top filly from the 1970s, who never trailed a race in her career until a misstep at New York's Belmont Park ended with her euthanized on the backstretch.
Something needed to be done for the sport, Spear says, both for practical reasons and for public relations. "Breakdowns at the track, when the public is only tuned in once or twice a year, [are] the kind of exposure no sport could endure," he says. Spear, the longtime host of televised Bay Area race reviews on Channel 26, is "cautiously optimistic" that Tapeta will make the difference. And he and Hartman believe that a safer racing surface will pay all sorts of other dividends.
In February of 2006, after a slew of high-profile track fatalities and the usual loss of racing dates due to inclement weather, the California Horse Racing Board pushed into law a mandate that all racetracks running for more than three weeks convert to synthetic turf by January 1, 2008. All California tracks except those at county fairgrounds — where racing, like the Tilt-a-Whirl, typically lingers for a few weeks before moving to the next town — would convert or close. The cost to the Magna Corporation, the owners of Golden Gate Fields, will be nearly $10 million. Yet, this requirement may have done the track's owners a favor, by driving a final nail in the coffin of their San Mateo counterpart Bay Meadows, already slated for closure due to its alluring real estate potential.
This summer, the 73-year-old Peninsula facility was granted a brief stay of execution based on questions about whether the new track at Golden Gate Fields would be ready in time for the November 7 racing season. Bay Meadows now gets to stay open until next November before ending its season for good. But by this time next year, when Golden Gate is ready to reopen, it could feature up to 100 more days of racing each year, and be the only major track within 400 miles.
At that point, Golden Gate Fields will stand alone, and if horse racing lives or dies in the Bay Area, its future will be fought out a horseshoe toss away from the Albany Bulb. If track officials have made the right bet, horses at Golden Gate Fields will run more safely and more will run in each race. Bigger fields should bring in bigger crowds and more people wagering more money.
But it's not at all clear that there's a clamor for more racing. Attendance numbers have mysteriously dropped from the daily sports pages, and it doesn't take a census taker to see that there's an awful lot of good seating available every day. And while racing is steeped in tradition, what does it mean that the very surface horses run upon has now been changed? As California tracks usher in this new era, it won't be a cliché when they say "throw out the record book" and are forced to retire old racing records. The names of horses such as Swaps, Nassau, and Silky Sullivan won't disappear from the memories of long-time fans, but comparing their era to the present may be impossible.
Finally, because Tapeta is designed for a climate like our own, track officials say that races won't be canceled or wildly affected by winter's wicked downpours. But the new surface's first North American test occurred during an East Coast summer, not a Bay Area winter. And that test called into question the most sincere hope of all for the Tapeta: that it would save the lives of horses.
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