Golden Gate Fields Hosts Final Race Amid Controversy and Nostalgia

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In an era whose twilight shadows seem to lengthen over America’s tradition-rich past, the tapestry of horse racing bids an affectionate, somber farewell to another of its historically iconic landmarks. Today, on the ninth day of June, Golden Gate Fields, a beloved horse racetrack nestled incongruously amid the thriving urbanity of San Francisco Bay, will host its final race. Against this backdrop of impending closure, and in a salute to the Bay area’s enduring spirit, a colorful, celebratory evening of DJs, live music, and a “Belmont Stakes Watch” party is set to close the curtain on what has been a cherished venue for equine sports enthusiasts.

Such is the bittersweet context for this pivotal page in the annals of equestrian lore. Marking the poignant departure of the 80-year-old track from California’s dwindling horse racing landscape is the recent victory of Chase the Chaos in the prestigious 2023 El Camino Derby. Yet, on this day, it will serve as the fitting backdrop even as the closing bells toll.

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While the atmosphere on this special closing weekend promises an eclectic blend of vibrancy, Viewpoints are polarized. Outside the racecourse’s historic boundaries, the Berkeley-based animal rights consortium, Direct Action, is all set to hold a somber mock funeral; a vocal protest commemorating an estimated 2,000 horses that they claim have met untimely deaths since the track’s inception.

A vigil replete with a symbolically loaded coffin and an array of flowers will articulate their protest, mirroring years of advocacy against what they perceive as unwarranted animal deaths. The group, which had been sued previously in 2022 by the racecourse owners, the Stronach Group, for disrupted races, has been a mainstay of the local horse-racing discourse.

The rich tapestry of history that envelopes Golden Gate Fields presents a stark contrast to its former avatar as a site of a dynamite and nitroglycerine facility that witnessed two explosions in the late 1800s. The track saw its advent in 1941, fuelled by the legalization of horse betting in California post-Great Depression, only to be repurposed as an equipment depot by the U.S. Navy during the war, with racing re-commencing in 1945.

Home to some of the most famed racehorses that pranced upon the thresholds of the 20th century, the track is peppered with tales of heroic feats; notably, when Noor toppled Triple Crown winner Citation at the Golden Gate Handicap in 1950. In a melancholic nod to its own past, Silky Sullivan, the legendary racehorse would be exhumed to be reinterred in Kentucky.

The track, once an epicenter of high-stakes racing, was the first in Northern California to host a $2 million day back in 1974. Regrettably, in the shadow of an unsupportive financial landscape, devoid of revenue influx from casinos and other gambling domains unlike other states, California’s horse racing industry has grappled with dwindling popularity and diminishing prize pools.

The current owner, the Stronach Group, has been studying the feasibility of consolidating its activities to its two Southern California locations, Santa Anita and San Luis Rey.

The group’s interest in channeling Northern California’s simulcast funds to its southern counterpart had been temporarily muted by the recent surprise move by the California Horse Racing Board who opted to schedule a 10-week meeting at the Alameda County Fair this fall, despite Stronach’s threat of closing the Santa Anita racetrack if racing was allowed to persist in the north.

Originally slated for closure last year, a last-minute reprieve saw Golden Gate open until June, on the condition that stakeholders do not oppose the proposed shift of simulcast awards. This has prompted criticism of Stronach by the LA Times for not fully disclosing its intentions earlier to stakeholders.

So the final race day arrives engulfed by a mixed bouquet of anticipation, nostalgia, controversy, and a lingering question about the future of horse racing in California. While the sun sets on Golden Gate Fields, it’s the end of an era, though not the end of the conversation.