There's something eerie about entering a place of excitement and merriment in the off-season; like flying a kite at night, it feels unreal and somewhat unnerving. On an early spring afternoon, the grandstand fronting the racetrack at Albany's Golden Gate Fields is empty, concession stands shuttered, bathrooms locked up for the season, and rows upon rows of seats, each with little high-school-like desks attached, are waiting to be sandblasted and repainted by a few scattered workers. The track itself looks well rested, tractor tire marks replacing hoof prints in the dirt. A lone lawnmower man moves around the infield, which looks like something from a Southern California movie set--relaxed in a self-conscious way with its clusters of flowers, palm trees, and pools with spurting fountains.
It's a timeless scene, one that could be witnessed at Golden Gate Fields during nearly any of the last sixty years. While the rest of the East Bay's shoreline has expanded and been festooned with new marinas, housing developments, and office towers, the changes normally brought by time have swept right on past Albany's bayfront.
Despite periodic outbreaks of uncertainty and civic discussion, a pastoral status quo has prevailed here for as long as most local residents can remember. But now, as an eccentric new owner is forced to deal with the negative trends that are afflicting the racing industry across the country, and with talk of development in the land around Golden Gate Fields reaching theme-park proportions, it appears that change may soon be coming to this piece of the East Bay shore.
Golden Gate Fields has consumed Albany's entire waterfront since 1940. It's the town's biggest property owner, its largest employer. It has also represented an uneasy compromise between the city and all the forces that have coveted the waterfront. The Santa Fe Railroad Corporation (and, later, its real estate development company, the Catellus Corporation) which for years owned the land beneath the track, hatched one plan after another to close the track and develop the waterfront with hotels and retail centers. Albany managed to stave off every plan, and the track remained.
Environmentalists, on the other hand, have looked longingly at the property, especially as plans for Eastshore State Park took shape. But since the likelihood of removing all development from the land has seemed far-fetched, most environmentalists have considered the continued existence of Golden Gate Fields to be the lesser of possible evils. The track, representing more an agricultural use than anything else, at least provides open space and relatively unobstructed views of the bay. But as economic tides turn, both for Albany and Golden Gate Fields' owner--the compromise that is Golden Gate Fields may finally be unraveling, and Albany may no longer be able to keep new development from its waterfront.
Golden Gate Fields takes up 181 acres of Albany's shoreline, much of that man-made fill. What is left of the shoreline--the man-made "Albany Bulb" and some of the plateau--is owned by the state. The grandstands and parking lot sit on Fleming Point, once a hill overlooking the San Francisco Bay. To elevate the grandstands properly and to provide space for parking, the top of Fleming Point was shaved off and dumped alongside to provide a base for the racetrack itself.
When Golden Gate Fields was built in 1940, it joined an already robust gambling industry in the East Bay. It was not even the East Bay's first track. Emeryville had hosted a racetrack, and El Cerrito had a dog track located on the site that is now El Cerrito Plaza. But from the beginning, Golden Gate Fields represented a dramatic intensification of the East Bay's gambling culture, and it wasn't built without a fight.
The minutes of the Albany City Council meetings of 1939 attest to the concerns over the spiritual and moral decay that were sure to accompany the first few notes of "The Call to the Post." Albany's First Baptist Church called on its members to become warriors against the racetrack and authorized them "to protest said proposal for horse racing activities, at any hearing before the Council; and to initiate whatever steps may be required to end forever the menace of the horse track within the City of Albany." The Adult Bible Class of the Albany Community Church urged the council to consider "the effect of the El Cerrito dog track upon Berkeley and Albany. It is a well proven fact that wherever these tracks have been they have increased crime, as well as keeping desirable people from coming in." A Mrs. V. Zahn noted that she had taken a special trip to observe the Santa Anita racetrack in Southern California. "A track makes for bad conditions," she warned, "and brings in certain characters who follow race tracks."
For its part, the council--in those heady days when a promising businessman knew nary of the evils of an Environmental Impact Report--simply sighed and informed its religious protesters that the matter was in the state's hands. The council could do nothing save deny the track a building permit, and "there was no good reason why this permit should be refused."
Perhaps there was some divine offense taken, because the opening of the Golden Gate Turf Club was definitely ill-fated. Two weeks of incessant rains immediately before the scheduled opening day turned the track into a giant sinkhole. Even when the rains let up for a day or two, the track remained such a goopy, muddy mess that the opening, scheduled for December 28, 1940, had to be repeatedly pushed back. Horsemen were so angered by the delays that they flooded Santa Anita's racing secretary with requests to move their horses to that track's sunnier climes.
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