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An afternoon at Golden Gate Fields

18 February 2009 No Comment

Samson Reiny/510Report

It’s an overcast Friday afternoon at Golden Gate Fields, the last remaining racing track in Northern California.  The on-and-off drizzle and chilly air have left the bleachers nearly empty as people flock into the clubhouse-a heated room with greasy ballpark-style foods being sold by vendors and closed-circuit television access to the races.  It isn’t quite a standing-room-only crowd, but it seems like a decent weekday turnout-a good number of seats are filled and the walking space is taken up by several anxious television watchers, their heads cocked toward the multiple screens above as they pace side to side, their hips swaggering in-between shuffles.  Scattered on the floor beneath the hubbub of enthusiasts are numerous, almost confetti-like, white betting tickets.

Charlie Medeiros, 64, is holding one of them at the betting kiosk, ready to pick his winning horse. These thin paper slips are used much like the modern Las Vegas slot machine tickets: Money is deposited into a kiosk, and a ticket with the equal dollar amount is printed.  That ticket then can be used at another kiosk to place wagers for races at Golden Gate Field, and at upcoming races all over the country, for that matter.  They can be converted back to cash, but for how much, of course, depends on how successful the bets are.  The abandoned tickets scattered across the floor are probably not winners.

Just a minute ago, Medeiros was leaning over the front bleachers near the paddock trying to get a last up-close look at the horses before the race.  “You’ve got to look at how shiny the fur is,” he said while smiling broadly.  “That tells you how healthy he is.”

Medeiros is a heavy-set man who has been coming to the track regularly for the past fifteen years, since he first moved to the Bay Area.  He often comes on Sundays, but sometimes, like today, he makes the weekday trek.  “When I get into a fight with my wife, I come here,” he says with a hearty laugh.

Over the years, he’s read many books on what to look for in a potential winner, like strong hind legs and perky and alert ears.  He looks at the expert picks on the scoreboard and compares them to what the general public is saying.  So with all of his assessments mentally tallied, he’s found his winning horse for the sixth race of the day.  He clicks on a series of options on the kiosk screen that narrow in on his choice: Golden Gate Fields, 6th race, 6th horse.  “Number six is it,” he says triumphantly with a broad smile.  “Alight in Darkness is my winner.”  The ticket is processed, and Medeiros, a lover of the live race, is one of the few that heads into the cold of the exposed bleachers.

***

The allure of the horse race-and the prospect of winning-has made Golden Gate Fields a premier entertainment venue since its opening in 1941.  After the closing of Bay Meadows in San Mateo last year, the West Berkeley fixture is now the only horse racing venue in Northern California.  The racetrack is having to adapt both to the increased competition within the gambling industry as well as to the major drop in betting in the wake of the recent economic crisis.  In order to increase its revenue, the nearly 70 year old institution is luring in a new generation of visitors, who, though not yet enthralled with the pure aesthetic of the race like Medeiros, are looking to have a good time.  

The race track has paid witness to several history-making events and rivalries, most notably one between the great Triple Crown champion Citation and the Irish-bred Noor, who in 1950 bested his more illustrious combatant for the fourth time that year at Golden Gate Fields.  There was Silky Sullivan, the horse whose come-from-behind style made him a fan-favorite when he won the Golden Gate Futurity in 1957.  (Silky was the first horse to by buried on the infield.)  John Henry, the Horatio Alger of thoroughbreds, who was once criticized for his inferior pedigree, sprinted through the 1984 Golden Gate Handicap in record time at the ripe old racing age of nine.

Today, the infield still has its genteel elegance, with fountain streams rising from large ponds, delicate shrubs rounded into simple design, and rich manicured grasses layered in contrast.  The quiet park holds the bustle of the rest of Berkeley at bay-a nearby jammed highway overpass snakes precariously near the far fence, and the imposing bulls-eye of a new Target store juts out from the urban sprawl.

Like the changing Berkeley landscape, the 1990’s saw the entertainment industry diversify, much to the detriment of the once-glorified track.  Horse racing, long California’s sole gambling enterprise, saw its monopoly hobble with the sudden emergence of Native American gaming casinos, state lotteries, and online wagering.  The capital flight hasn’t eased since; over the last decade the racing fields have had to stare down a ten percent decline in betting.  Some former racing fans have forsaken the hullabaloo of a flash-photo neck-and-neck finale for the sterile lights of triple 7’s on a slot machine or the shotgun repetition of online poker.

And the strain of the last few decades has only been exacerbated by the current decline of the economy.  Standing in the clubhouse, shuffling through her big stack of betting tickets, is Lucia, a short, older woman with a round cherubic face wrapped with librarian’s glasses.  Having come nearly every day for the last four years, she’s made horse race betting her career. “I’ve made about $300 today,” she says, “and not to boast or anything, but it’s normally more than that.”  But surely, not everyone is winning.  Can even the stalwart groupies bet with the same ease they did when the economy was better?  “The people here, they would never tell you if they were betting less,” Lucia says earnestly.  “They have too much pride.”

Indeed, several other gamblers at the track share her outlook. “I’ve been coming here for 30 years,” says Butch Coyoca, 62.  “I spent my college education here…I don’t bet a lot like I did when I was younger, but the economy hasn’t affected my betting now.”

“People are going to bet big no matter what,” another older man mumbles, barely looking up as he fumbles through his tickets.

But these statements belie the overall reality of gambling in this economy: The amount of money being wagered on races across the country is dropping.  “People are betting maybe $20 instead of $30,” says Sam Spear, media relations director at Golden Gate Fields.  “It’s just a sign of the times.”

And it’s not the just betting numbers that have gone down-the horses themselves are disappearing.  “Normally, there’s about eight horses on a race like this,” Spear says while pointing to a lineup of steeds posted at the starting gates.  “There are only six competing here.  That’s a potentially major problem since people need horses to bet on.”

Horse owners, who finance the grooming, training, stable rentals, and the horses’ riders expenses, are also feeling the strain.  “Many of these horse owners own businesses, and they might not be doing too well right now,” Spear says.  “A lot of owners are on the sidelines.”  Spears notes that some owners don’t make money, some break even, and others reap a profit-but then again, he points out, owners don’t fund racehorses for the money.  “It’s about seeing your horse on the track and seeing your personal colors and logo on the horse and the rider.  They do this because of the passion and love of the sport,” he says.

***

A few days later, the weather at the track is even worse-on this stormy Sunday, the whipping wind is pulling the rain in all directions, and the cold is biting and relentless.  But the weather hasn’t kept people away from the fields.  A steady stream of traffic is heading into the stadium from Gilman Avenue even though the first race is already finished.   

That’s because Sundays are now Dollar Days at Golden Gate Fields.  General admission, parking, programs, hotdogs, beer, and soda are all just a buck each.  The track’s motivation for starting Dollar Days last year was simple: the racetrack needed to increase attendance to offset both the general drop in horse racing attendance over the last few decades and the recent decline in betting among those who still gamble.  “On-site attendance and betting is the biggest piece of the pie,” said Spear.  “It helps our bottom line.”  The first of these bargain days were put on sporadically last year to see if attendance increased, and it did; now Dollar Day is a weekly event.

And it’s paying off.

Comparing this winter to the last one, attendance is up six percent and betting is up seven percent.  “It’s because we’ve enhanced our marketing of the Dollar Day promotions,” said Robert Hartman, the track’s general manager.  Golden Gate Fields has been on an advertising blitz in the last few months, hitting newspapers, television, and radio waves to reach as many people as possible. Spear attributes the increase to reeling in newcomers and, particularly, a younger audience.

“Young people are looking for entertainment on a day-off,” he says, “and Dollar Days provides that for them.”

But the buck doesn’t stop there.  The race is no longer the only showpiece on some racing days.  Golden Gate Fields held its first Chinese New Year’s Celebration a few Sundays ago, complete with lion dancers, acrobats, and a fortune teller.  This past Saturday, there were free t-shirts being handed out to celebrate El Camino Real Derby Day.  The week after next Saturday, it’s Snow Day-over forty tons of the white fluffy stuff will blanket an area of the complex and a sledding hill.

The Bay Area landmark, no longer able to rely solely on its rich history as a center for one of America’s great past-times, is trying to do what it must to thrive in the future-change with the times and attract new customers who come here for very different reasons than veteran gambler Charlie Madeiros does. Dollar Day Sunday is noisy, loud, and smelly. The crowd is very young, some attendees are very buzzed, and many are clueless about horse racing’s finer aspects.  Maybe most fans start off this way, not quite sure what to make of anything except the cheap beer and the euphoria of crowd dynamics.

Inside the stadium, on the covered lower grandstand level, droves of twentysomethings are standing huddled in cliques.  They’re chatting and laughing and giggling and yelling for others standing far away.  Their reasons for being here are the same: “It’s Dollar Day,” says Hugh McDowell, 21, whose warm breath smells of recently-eaten hot dog.  “It’s entertainment.”

“Basically just for fun,” adds Chelsea Kadota, 21, while drinking a beer.  “I’ve been here about four times, all on Dollar Days.”

“Are you winning?,” I ask.

“I haven’t been very lucky,” she says.

Near the paddock, the horses up next are taking their perfunctory mini-laps near the bleachers so the spectators can examine them.  Families are out in full force today.  Children are admiring the steeds that are standing so close to the perimeter one can hear the distinct glottal wheezes only a horse can make. A little girl with a pink jacket points to one.  “I like that one,” she says while half-hopping eagerly.

“You sure now?” says her father, Rene Cage, 50, who is also looking for his winner.  Cage smiles as she confirms her choice.  “This is her day,” he says.  “She likes to see the horses up-close.”

Nearby, a trio of middle-aged women is also making last-minute picks.  “I like that one because he smiled at me,” says one of them.

“Who, the rider?” I ask.

“No, the horse, who cares about the rider!,” she says playfully.  They erupt in laughter, and the beer each woman is holding almost splashes over the brim. “But I also like the name of the other horse, Peace Accord,” she continues while trying to contain herself.  “I love the way that sounds.”

“These two are from out of state,” her friend adds.  “I’m just bringing them for the entertainment.  I’ve been only a couple times myself.”

Just a minute later, the race begins, the one involving the smiling horse and the horse with the cool-sounding name.  One half of the crowd is outside cheering from the bleachers-the other is indoors, where some are watching the race casually on the television, and others, mostly twentysomethings, are huddled in circles sipping their beers and laughing and chatting with each other.  Some of them will eventually find out that number 2, Defensive Move, won the thrilling race, holding off a late rally by Peace Accord.

***

In the midst of all this change at Golden Gate Fields, there are still weekdays with no gimmicks, no dollar deals, not even decent weather.  On Fridays, one is more apt to find someone like Tony Ferreira, who loves the sport and has been coming since 1991.  He’s found gazing at the paddock where all the horses are being primed for the race. “I started with $10, and I’m up to $200.  It’s been a good day,” he says.

The sixth race of the day is underway, and Charlie Medeiros is leaning over the front bleachers.  He’s confident his pick, number 6, Alight in Darkness, will make the top finish. The stall doors open, and the six horses whip out with such speed and fury it’s as if they had been caged with a swarm of bees.

“Come on 6, you’re in the right place 6!” Medeiros shouts as his feet anxiously tip-toe up and down in place.  Number 6th is in fourth place a nearly a third of the way through, but Medeiros isn’t worried.  “The other horses get tired at the end. Mine is at the right place,” he says, half-shouting over the hollering crowd that has formed along the front railings.  “Darn it!”  “Keep it up!” and “Crap!” find their way into the milieu of audibility while the announcer on microphone spills out the play-by-play in an urgent, almost panicked tone.

As the horses make their way around the bend toward the finish line, the intensity of the crowd goes up another notch.  People have forsaken the holler for all-out screams.  A man repeatedly slams his program onto the railing while pleading for number 4 to pull ahead; a woman flails her arms while wildly demanding that number 5 keep its lead.

And number 5 does keep it’s lead-A Daisy Field dashes through the finish line and wins the race.  Medeiros’ pick, Alight in Darkness, placed second to last.  “Well, I lost that one. Let’s see who’s next,” he says, shrugging off the loss.  Asked what his win-loss ratio is for the day, he says, “I don’t really know until I go home.”  He looks up at the sky for a moment and thinks.  “But it doesn’t matter,” he says.  “I just like to smell the grass and see the horses … it’s my passion.”

Medeiros heads back near the paddock where the horses for the next race are being prepped.  The drizzle has picked up and he’s the only one there, scribbling notes in his program guide.

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