With Bay Meadows already shut down, more facilities in danger of the same fate

Del Mar — where the turf meets the surf — still draws fans as they flock to the seashore to see live thoroughbred racing.

But on Wednesday's opening day, that rumble in the background wasn't thundering waves. It was the threat of an uncertain future.

Amid a terrible economy, California's $5 billion horse racing industry is on the brink of losing more tracks. Reflecting a nationwide trend, a once recession-proof business has been hit by a double-digit drop in wagering. Meanwhile, track property is coveted by developers, adding pressure to cities considering other uses for these sports landmarks.

This month, the Inglewood City Council approved a $2 billion redevelopment project — including a shopping center and 3,000 luxury homes and condos — to replace venerable Hollywood Park, a three-time host of the Breeders' Cup world championships. Demolition might come as soon as next year.

"Every time I walk around Hollywood Park, I realize that this is such a great track and such a great place to race horses," trainer Jerry Hollendorfer said. "How can we do something to equal it or even come close? The answer is we can't. We don't have somewhere else to go."

Hollywood isn't the only track threatened. With owner Magna Entertainment in bankruptcy, Arcadia's Santa Anita Park — site of this November's Breeders' Cup — is for sale. Golden Gate Fields in Albany might be sold, too, and bids for Santa Anita will be opened next week.

Historic Bay Meadows in San Mateo, closed last year, now is a pile of rubble.

The Solano County Fair in Vallejo, celebrating its 60th birthday, opened Wednesday for what many people expect to be its final week of live racing.

"It might be our last year," said general manager Michael Paluszak. "We don't know, and we won't know until all the parties weigh in on the schedule for next year."

The Vallejo City Council and the Solano County Board of Supervisors recently approved a "vision plan" for the Solano fairgrounds that does not include racing, Paluszak noted. The five-day fair meet also faces competition for its race dates from other Northern California fairs.

Even Del Mar — annually one of the nation's most successful meets — is in danger. Its state-owned fairgrounds home is on the list of properties Gov. Schwarzenegger would like to sell.

With its six-week "boutique meet" just north of San Diego, Del Mar averages more than 16,000 fans a day — second only to New York's Saratoga. But last summer, the destination track saw a 4.3 percent drop in attendance and a 7 percent decline in wagering.

This year, business was also worse at Santa Anita (down nearly 15 percent in wagering from 2008) and Hollywood Park (down 11 percent after shortening to a four-day week).

In addition, the poor economy and out-of-state competition have created a horse shortage as thoroughbred owners cut back their California stables. That prompted track and state officials to cut Del Mar's schedule back to five days a week from its traditional six for its 70th season.

"We're a success; we do three times the business of Hollywood and Santa Anita," track president Joe Harper recently told reporters. "But I wish some of the 40,000 people who come out on our opening day would visit those tracks."

Sunday, Hollywood Park wrapped up its 70th spring/summer meet shortly after Inglewood's approval of redevelopment plans for the 238-acre parcel, five minutes from Los Angeles International Airport.

Owned by Bay Meadows Land Co., the storied track looks like it's headed the way of Bay Meadows — becoming only a memory.

"It's going to be sad, not just for me but for Southern California," said trainer Ron Ellis, who has been based at Hollywood for five years. "There are an awful lot of horses here (about 1,400 year-round). There's really not enough room at Santa Anita to handle that many (additional) horses. It will wear out the track."

Gail McNeal, a former Inglewood resident, has worked at Hollywood and Santa Anita since 1977. In her job as an elevator operator, she's met thousands of people — many of them becoming friends.

"My customers are distraught," she said of the track's demise. "I can't believe the community would want Hollywood Park to go away. This track put Inglewood on the map."

"If Hollywood Park goes away, you're eliminating one-third of (Southern California) racing," added longtime fan Diane Becker, who launched in hopes of rallying support. "You can't eliminate this whole industry from our state. There are thousands of good union jobs at stake. I'm just dumbfounded."

After 74 years, San Mateo allowed Bay Meadows to be plowed under. Shortly after its final program Aug. 18, the wrecking ball brought down its grandstand. Demolition was completed in April, but actual grading and construction won't start until late 2009 at the earliest. Wilson Meany Sullivan (which also is the developer for the Hollywood Park plan) was granted 15 years to complete the project, including 715,000 square feet of office space and 1,200 single-family homes, townhomes and condominiums.

Pleasanton's Alameda County Fairgrounds and Golden Gate have helped Bay Area horsemen cope with only one major racetrack. With no Bay Meadows, Golden Gate saw an 11 percent increase in attendance, but a 6.5 percent decrease in wagering.

"Luckily for Northern California, the situation seems to be working out so far because we've got Pleasanton," Hollendorfer said. "It's a very good facility. That might work out with more racing, especially if they get a turf course."

With current plans for an NBA arena contingent on razing its racetrack, Cal Expo racing in Sacramento also is at risk. Today, the California Horse Racing Board is expected to grant final approval for thoroughbred dates for Cal Expo's State Fair meet, Aug. 26-Sept. 7.

Home to the only harness racing in California, Cal Expo actually is bucking the statewide trend with modest upticks in attendance and wagering, which averages $900,000 a night.

"We're holding our own," said David Elliott, Cal Expo's racing director. "We're not for sale. We're not building a new arena next year. We're racing at Cal Expo until we're not."