"Memory draws from delight, ere it dies, an essence that breathes of it many a year…" — Irish bard Thomas Moore, 1779-1852
Bay Meadows, California’s pioneering racetrack, has been this aging fan’s delight for nearly my entire lifetime. Now, barring an unlikely last-minute reprieve, it is marching inexorably toward May 11, the final day of its final meeting.
Doomed by commercial real estate developers, the “track that Bill built” 74 years ago along the El Camino Real in San Mateo is to be demolished by the wrecking ball, thereby bruising the psyches of generations of faithful fans and splitting Northern California’s future racing dates into small bits and pieces.
A son of poor Irish immigrants, “Bill” was William P. Kyne of San Francisco, who abandoned plans for the priesthood to lead the 1933 campaign legalizing racing in California after its long absence. The “yes” votes on the statewide ballot hardly had been totaled before Kyne, the flamboyant trailblazer, was breaking ground at an abandoned airfield along the El Camino Real—“The King’s Highway” or “Royal Road” trod by those earlier trailblazers, the mission-building Franciscan padres.
“The Meadows” opened Nov. 3, 1934—eight weeks ahead of Santa Anita’s first meeting, many months ahead of Del Mar’s and Hollywood Park’s, and seven years before Golden Gate’s. Innovations introduced by Kyne included the enclosed stall, electric starting gate designed by Clay Puett and financed by Kyne, the electronic totalizator board, the photo-finish camera, the jockeys’ hot box, and transportation of racehorses by air.
Following are some of this fan’s memories of Bay Meadows over seven decades:
Most Historic Moment: May 21, 1939, watching Specify win the Bay Meadows Handicap on my first-ever day at a racetrack. (Specify later was to defeat Seabiscuit, who had won the race in ’37 and again in ’38.)
Most Thrilling Moment: Cashing two $2 win tickets following the three-horse blanket finish of the Thornton Stakes Nov. 11, 1939. The Thornton, a four-mile marathon, was the defining moment in a series of marathons created by Kyne, and took 7:17 3⁄5 heart-pounding minutes to negotiate. At 7-2, Anhelation came from 40 lengths back to catch two others at the wire, with legendary 12-year-old Malicious a close-up fourth. Wow!
Most Embarrassing Moment (in retrospect): Watching Cigar, a son of Palace Music and grandson of The Minstrel, finish third in a turf stakes Sept. 25, 1993, and grousing to my companions, “If he can’t win with a turf pedigree like that, he’s not going to amount to much.” True, Cigar didn’t amount to much for another year while his connections kept him on grass. In the autumn of ’94, however, Cigar switched to dirt and the result (16 straight victories) made horse racing history.
Most Festive Moment: Attending Ascot Day Oct. 23, 1983, decked out as a proper English gentleman in rented morning coat, gray-striped trousers and top hat, and with my fair lady on my arm. When guests so attired alighted from horse-drawn carriages at the finish line, they were introduced over the track’s p.a. system and escorted to an infield picnic. Almost lost amid the festivities was the American record of 1:382⁄5 for 11⁄16 miles, set that afternoon by Hoedown’s Day.
Most Poignant Moment: Grasping the hand of globetrotting English riding champion Lester Piggott when he competed in the annual International Jockey Competition in the ’80s. I thanked him for earlier making an unscheduled stop in New Zealand to ride my cousin’s horse in the Air New Zealand Stakes (NZ-I). Cousin Peter Cathro trained Arbre Chene, a miler, but never lived to see Piggott nurse the gelding to victory over the classic distance of 11⁄4 miles. Just days before the race, Peter had been killed in a freak stable accident.
Highest and Lowest Moments: Watching with John and Betty Mabee as their Event of the Year, an undefeated son of Seattle Slew, wins the 1998 El Camino Real Derby (gr. III) to become the favorite for the Kentucky Derby (gr. I). Eight days before the Run for the Roses, the colt is hurt in his final Derby workout.
Such is the essence of one fan’s delights and disappointments along The King’s Highway. As Britons proclaim when a monarch dies and a successor mounts the throne, “The King is dead! Long live the King!”
Sadly, Kyne the kingpin is dead, his track is dying, and no successor travels the once Royal Road.
Born and reared in Northern California, MORTON CATHRO is an award-winning newspaperman, now retired.