Bay’s Best Bet’ brings Golden Gate to life

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It’s an imposing racetrack, seemingly rising out of the bay. The San Francisco skyline serves as a backdrop while the Golden Gate Bridge looms further on, shrouded in fog. 

You can’t compare it to Saratoga, Churchill or Del Mar. You wouldn’t want to anyways; they’re not the same. Golden Gate Fields sits along the East bay in North Berkeley, waves lapping at its back, a testament to the resiliency of a time-weathered sport.

I never expected to find myself there in the middle of the Saratoga meet. And I certainly never expected to stand in line for a half hour to get into a racetrack with a meet that runs 10 months and averages a few thousand fans on a good day. 

But times at Golden Gate are changing. The ‘Bay’s Best Bet,’ is doing what few others are willing to do in the industry. They’re adapting. 

“We’re going to go the batter’s box and we’re going to swing for the fences,” said Dan Cirimele, the director of marketing at Golden Gate as he stood among a Sunday crowd of nearly 12,000 last month. “We might strike out but we’re not going to go down with the bat on our shoulder. If you want to say the ship’s sinking then cool, let’s at least enjoy the time while its going down, let’s see what we can do. I’m not going to sit here and mope while it happens.”

That particular Sunday was Dollar Day at Golden Gate. A buck to get in. A buck for a hot dog, program, or perhaps most importantly, a beer. It’s just one of the many ploys the team at Golden Gate is using to get the turnstiles spinning again. As horse racing rebounds from the depths of a recession to which no one was immune, all the while in a constant war for the attention of the American sports fan, who can sit at home and watch any one of a 100 sports games from his La-Z-Boy recliner, it’s taken a new approach, an entirely new philosophy to get Golden Gate back on its feet. 

“Dollar Day is cool because it hits so many different markets,” Cirimele said. “It’s like we’re Walmart shopping, ‘Pay less live better.’ It’s a buck to get in but guys will drop 20 bucks once they walk into the gate. Play a band, have a dog race on the track. The horseplayers will always come. We’re going for the newcomers. We’re trying to plant the seeds and grow them up. I don’t expect these people to show up next week or two weeks from now, I just want them to come back two or three times a year.”

And it’s working. The theory is simple: Get people in the door and the sport sells itself. 

“People don’t care if they win two bucks or 20 cents; winning is an addiction,” Cirimele said. “I’m just trying to sell the high fives. You payed a dollar to get here, what else could you be doing for a dollar today? Here you can have five hours of fun and walk out with money in your pocket.” 

It’s certainly not lavish like Saratoga. There are no picnic tables, or gazebos. No canoes floating on the infield ponds. That’s not Golden Gate, nor should it be. Rusty bolts adorn an aging Grandstand. Interstate 80 skirts along the backstretch. A mariachi band called the field to the post for the first two races on what was also Hispanic heritage day.

“We’re finally starting to get with the times,” Cirimele said while surveying a raucous crowd during the day’s sixth race. “Dollar Day is like our Christmas tree. That’s set, we’ll get our built in crowd. And then on top of that we can decorate it with different events. Hispanic day, Chinese New Year, Lunar New Year, St. Patrick’s day; you name it we’re trying it. We gave it a shot and now we’re getting numbers that we haven’t seen in years.”

As you walk into Golden Gate Fields, across sun-bleached pavement and beneath tattered green and white flags, there’s no doubt the facility has seen better days. Cirimele’s wish list is longer than a toddler’s at Christmas – fresh paint, new carpet, a new logo, new TVs. The priority however is getting bodies in the seats. Everyone sees things that you can fix. It’s like walking into a messy room. You can’t clean it all up at once. You’ve got to focus on one thing at a time.

As for the racing, the card at Golden Gate is typically simple and understated. Mostly claimers. Jockeys and trainers making their typical rounds amongst the Northern California tracks and fairs. It doesn’t change the fact that every time the gates open there’s an excitement in the air. That’ll never change.

On a track where the storylines typically revolve around Hall of Fame jockey Russell Baze and his frequent multiple win days, Sunday was a rare exception. While Baze was at Emerald Downs riding Politicallycorrect in the Longacres Mile, it was open competition among the trainers and jockeys left at Golden Gate.

Trainer Bill Morey examined his Daily Racing Form beneath a cloudless day, a slight breeze ruffling the pages. His 3-year-old gelding, Havoc, greeted him in the winner’s circle, a small enclosure lined with neatly trimmed hedges and barely large enough to fit a horse, trainer, groom and photographer. 

“It’s a great place to be and a better place to ride,” Morey said after the win. “It’s the racetrack on the bay, that’s where we’re at. It’s nice to work at, to run races at, and winning certainly adds to that.”

It’s been a while since the likes of Citation and John Henry romped over the grounds at Golden Gate, setting track records that stand today. In the time since the greats last rode here, Bay Meadows has closed, Golden Gate has changed hands (a few times), and horses now run on the synthetic Tapeta Footings surface. But change can be a good thing. Golden Gate isn’t trying to mimic the tracks of Southern California. They’d seemingly settle for being the ‘best dive bar in the area.’ Heck, they’d welcome that title. 

“Our generation is so pessimistic,” Cirimele said of Generation Y, today’s college kid. “But I think we’re getting back to thinking how our grandfathers did. ‘I’ll smoke a cigar, I’ll drink a little, I’ll gamble,’ … maybe that’ll be the saving grace. But I also think that inviting different cultures to the races is key. I think we need to become better at speaking different languages. Write the welcome sign in a dozen languages and invite them in.”

The changes haven’t been met with complete acceptance and an absence of resentment. They’ve prompted more than a few of the ‘old timers’ to complain about the changing times. 

“I hear all the old timers say, ‘On a Tuesday in ’76 this place was packed,’ ” Cirimele said, antipathy evident in his tone. “Well ’76 was a long time ago. We’re not getting 30,000 on a Tuesday anymore. Times have changed. Maybe it’s not a bad thing that we have to sell for a buck. The sport is not in trouble. It just needs to evolve. Maybe you can’t charge millionaires row anymore.”

Whatever the case may be, Golden Gate is actively seeking a solution. They’ve ripped up the 1940s playbook, started taking notes on what works and built a foundation to work off of. It takes guts and courage to change course in rough waters, but horse racing is inherently a gutsy game.

Golden Gate Fields may be a longshot, but why not throw a few bucks down on the longshot every now and then? Sometimes you might just hit it big.

Ryan Jones, a student at Brown University, was a second-year intern with The Saratoga Special this past season and spent a weekend away from Saratoga attending a wedding in San Francisco in mid-August.