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Golden Gate Fields Resurfacing Plan Faces Challenges, Legal Hurdles

By Richard Brenneman
Friday June 08, 2007

The Sierra Club doesn’t object to a new track finish for Albany’s Golden Gate Fields; they just don’t like how it’s being done. 

For Norman La Force, the attorney who chairs the club’s East Bay Public Lands Committee, the central issue isn’t the state-mandated resurfacing of the venerable East Bay horse racing venue; it’s the possible violation of state environmental laws. 

La Force said he doesn’t object to the new Tapeta surface in principle. What he does object to is the track’s failure to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act. 

“They’ve known since last May that they have to install the new surface, but they only filed for a permit on April 17, and now they’re threatening a lawsuit if the city doesn’t approve it right now,” La Force said. 

“Basically, they have to show it’s safe for the community,” said Albany Mayor Robert Lieber, who added that his ability to comment was limited by the fact he may have to vote on the issue at an upcoming council meeting. 

“They have a right to do it, and it’s probably good for the horses and the jockeys, and if it’s safe and good for the community, there’s no reason not to do it,” he said. 

The proposal calls for removing and replacing upwards of 12,000 cubic yards of soil, and La Force said he’s heard that the actual figure could be up to 30,000 cubic yards. 

The earth would be temporarily stored on-site on the same parking lot where the failed shopping center had been planned and where track owners Magna Entertainment are reporting to be thinking of siting a hotel. 

The issue for La Force is whether or not the soil has been adequately tested for toxins, a step he said is critical given that much of site was created with infill imported from other sites. 

While preliminary tests were rushed through after the Sierra Club first raised its objections, La Force said more thorough testing may be need to make certain the soil contains nothing to endanger people or wildlife. 

The Tapeta mixture—a patented blend of wax-coated sand, fibers and rubber—represents only the top 4-7 inches of the system, installed above a permeable 2-inch later of asphalt laid over a 6-inch layer of crushed rock, with a system of permeable drainage pipes laced through the layer of soil beneath. 

A similar system by another firm, costing $8 million, was just installed at the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, and the process can be viewed online at 

What concerns the Sierra Club and the mayor is the nature of the soil that will be removed, and whether or not the earth slated for removal may contain contaminants. 

On Feb. 10. 2006, the California Horse Racing Board ordered all tracks with racing calendars longer than 14 days in the state to switch to a synthetic surface designed to reduce leg injuries to the animals and reduce spills which can injure or kill their riders. 

The move came after members of the board learned that 5,156 horses had been injured on state tracks over the previous decade—with 2,343 of them killed either in or as a result of accidents—and that injuries and deaths drop dramatically after artificial surfaces are installed. 

The exemption for shorter racing dates was designed to allow for continued racing at California county fairs, which generally have short racing seasons and which cannot afford the considerable expense of installing the artificial surface. 

Del Mar, which holds races as part of the San Diego County Fair, is an exception, and had to install the track because races there extend for a longer season. 

Magna Entertainment, founded by Canadian auto parts magnate Frank Stronach, is North America’s leading horse racing track owner, and runs the Albany track. 

Stronach teamed with Los Angeles mega-mall magnate Rick Caruso to propose an upscale shopping mall with housing above on part of the Albany track’s parking lot, which led to a ballot initiative campaign which was rejected by a judge because of a missed filing requirement. 

But when two leading proponents of the initiative won election to the Albany City Council last November, mall opponents had captured a majority on the five-member panel and the project was quietly tabled. 

Malls are a major element in Stronach’s strategy for his racing company, with another Caruso complex at Santa Anita in Southern California. 

Albany city staff have declared the track’s application to install the new surface incomplete, and the whole matter may wind up before the city council, Lieber said. 


Dixon defeat 

Golden Gate Fields officials filed their application for city permits to resurface the Albany track on April 17, same day that citizens in Dixon, to the east, were voting on four initiatives targeting plans by Magna to build a high tech television-friendly track adjacent to the rural Sacramento Valley farm town. 

As planned, Dixon Downs would have been a major racing facility within 23 miles of the state capital, featuring what Magna CEO Michael Neuman described as a “California fair type facility ... together with mixed use retail.” 

Voters faced four ballot measures focused on the $250 million project, backed by a sophisticated $500,000 Manga-funded campaign. 

With the impending closure of Bay Meadows at the end of the upcoming season, the Bay Area’s only other major track and one Magna had leased and operated, Stronach’s firm had been looking for a venue to fill the void for the past five years, settling on Dixon. 

In addition to the track, Magna’s plans called for 1.2 million square feet of additional development on 51 acres of its 260-acre property, featuring a hotel, conference facilities, major retailers, shops and other amenities promising 2,000 new jobs for a community of only 17,000 residents. 

Dixon voters rejected the Magna plan, though company officials say they may try again. 

“We could go back, either alone or with partners and undertake the process” to try again for approval of the original plan, “[o]r a process to get entitled to simply go for mixed use retail,” Magna Entertainment CEO Michael Neuman told investors in a telephone conference May 7. 

Magna retains the property, which Neuman said “is still appreciating as we speak.” 

Plans for the Dixon track were drawn up with the television camera in mind, thanks to the new era of betting where most wagers are placed from betting parlors far from the tracks where they occur. 

Racing aficionados have become habitués of off-track betting (OTB) parlors, located either at other tracks or in purpose-built facilities like those found in New York City or in clubs and taverns as in Illinois. 

States created the venues hoping to capture some of the mountains of cash that had been flowing through illegal bookmakers, or in the plush wagering halls of Las Vegas casinos. 

Television is critical to the enterprise, because bettors like to watch the races on the large screens at OTB parlors. 

The rise of the OTB parlor has proved a serious problem to cities like Albany, because the city collects revenues only on bets made at the track, and receives no revenues on bets made there on races elsewhere. 


Other plans 

Meanwhile, Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates is urging another project on the track—installation of solar panels at the clubhouse and on new stables now being planned. 

Cisco DeVries, the mayor’s chief of staff, said Bates wants the track to adopt solar technology, and also hopes that Golden Gate Fields will work with Berkeley on plans to install solar panels at the parking lot and ball fields of the new Gilman fields recreational facility south of the track. 

He said another notion suggested at a recent meeting attended by the mayor—using solar power to generate hydrogen for a fueling station at the fields for vehicles that might use the clean-burning gas—didn’t look feasible. 

DeVries said that yet another rumored plan, building a hotel on the Albany parking lot at the track, wasn’t being urged by the mayor, though it surfaced during casual discussions at a recent event in Albany. 

“He said there’s no plan for a hotel at Golden Gate Fields,” DeVries said.