Golden Gate Fields: Dispatches From A Track Facing the End

Golden Gate Fields | Vassar Photography

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GOLDEN GATE FIELDS, CA — On bright June mornings at the end of training when a cool breeze is skimmed from the top of San Francisco Bay, Golden Gate Fields suspends in midair.

The remaining horses gallop by almost silently, save for a sound like the ripple of a kite tugging at a string. Behind them, the infield water fountains shiver and hiss while above, western gulls turn and wheel on invisible wires. It's a world contained–its shoulder braced against the whirring cogs of time, straining against the pull.

Then your eyes lift to the traffic crawling the I-580. Your ears adjust to the constant hum of cars headed to brunch dates and shopping trips and hikes up Mount Diablo. Even in its faded pomp, the yawning grandstand seems to call out to them proudly. “Look out your window! Come visit!” Every so often, one of the cars heeds the call. But few do–not anymore. In trying to pause the clock, the risk is that time gives up on you altogether.

“I always say, if you can't say anything good, don't say anything at all,” says a figure hunched over the rail at the entrance to the track, her grey hair swept back, cracked hands ingrained with dirt. She doesn't want her name used. She's tired, dejected.

This Sunday, The Stronach Group (TSG)-owned track will stage its very last race. And then the fate of hundreds of Northern California-based trainers, grooms, hotwalkers, breeders, exercise riders and jockeys could hinge on the success or failure of a 10-week meet this fall at the Alameda County Fair in Pleasanton about 35 miles away, depending on the route.

“It's just rotten what's been done to us,” she eventually says, forgetting her well-intentioned mantra.

D. Waybe Baker barn area | Dan Ross

Just then, her companion at the rail–a tall, portly man with a citrus orange t-shirt pulled tight over his stomach–suddenly breaks off towards his barn. The woman perks up: his exercise rider has exited the track one circuit too soon.

“Then just tell him to go back,” she calls out, and chuckles when the man shrugs his shoulders. She trundles off in the same direction. “I'll see you around, I guess,” she says, over her shoulder. “Someplace, anyways.”

“It's terrible. No bueno,” says Octavio Saldana, 37, hosepipe in hand as he fills the last of the water buckets in the barn of his boss, trainer D. Wayne Baker. Theirs is a corner of the backstretch just a few hundred feet from the Bay, where the waters break against the rocks.

The barn is a paint-pot amid a faded watercolor of a backstretch, where splintered doorframes are eaten raw, thin walls slant inwards and roofs sag. Rickety barrows rigged with bicycle wheels are discarded next to broken pitchforks. Parked cars look as though they could rust in a second.

But not at D. Wayne Baker's stable. The entrance wears a garland of flowers like a Kentucky Derby winner. An empty concrete water fountain in the middle of a neatly raked walking ring suggests a certain exotic splendor. The interior is just as carefully kept, all thanks to the work of employees like Saldana, who doesn't want to leave his workplace of 11 years.

Saldana will commute to Pleasanton from the Bay Area, where he lives with his wife and daughter, when the barn relocates wholesale in the next week or so.

“I've got no choice,” he says. “I don't know why they close this place. But what can we do?”

Saldana wears the watchful demeanor of someone who rarely stops thinking about his horses. He takes a question about memories and heads straight to a pretty, sweet-natured gelding with a nose as soft as moss–Honeymoonz Over, a modern legend at Golden Gate, with a taste for nibbling visitors' backpacks. At the grand old age of nine, Honeymoonz Over has won 19 races here, “sixteen of them for me,” Saldana says, proudly.

Saldana remembers one week at Golden Gate some six or seven years ago when he won four races back-to-back. He rubs his chin as he tries to recall their names.

A few barns over lives a long-time track resident who could give Ken Burns a run for his money.

Golden Gate stable area | Dan Ross

“I don't remember people's names, but I remember horses' names,” says trainer Melanie McDonald, leant against the doorway of room number six, behind her a jar of pickles open on a small fold-away table. Just off to the side, her husband Frank, 90, listens in while hanging a sentry of worn red bandages in the sun.

At 86, McDonald has a broad open face crisscrossed with deep lines, like a carpenter's workbench. She's small and wiry and strong. A few years ago, weeks after almost dying of COVID, she was back to work lugging around bales of straw on her back.

McDonald first came to Golden Gate in 1957, walking hots for trainer Buck Logan. She remembers a time when women weren't allowed to be exercise riders–but she did it anyway, when the men let her. She remembers galloping a stakes-class mare called Mystic Air who once jumped a snake slithering across a dirt road like it was a fence. And she remembers the early years of her training career, before Frank joined in the fun.

“I had a horse called Meadow Blade who was by Sword Dancer,” says McDonald, recalling an older mare with some distant form on Belmont Park's turf course. “I think it was the first year they had the grass course here,” she says. And so, she entered the mare on the new turf. “She ended up winning and paid pretty good, too.

“My husband, who I didn't really know at the time, bet on her. He was good friends with another guy I was training for. He won a whole bunch of money out of me on the exacta. I think the exacta paid $2,600 or something. And that's how I met my husband,” says McDonald, “that mare winning on the grass.”

McDonald reserves special place for the celebrity closer Silky Sullivan, who in the late 1950s did more to raise blood pressures up and down the state than saturated fats. She remembers asking Logan for the afternoon off to see Silky Sullivan run at Golden Gate.

“Those days the paddock was kind of where the winner's circle is now. It was a big round cement thing. There were stairs going down to it for the public so they could view the horses–the horses were lore back then,” says McDonald, her pale blue eyes clouding in the clear morning sunlight.

“We went down three races early so that we could get a place right up front to watch Silky Sullivan in the paddock,” says McDonald. “He was a beautiful chestnut horse. When you're a kid, and I was a horse-mad girl, you thought he was a god.”

Lost in the Fog memorial wall | Dan Ross

Silky Sullivan was buried in the Golden Gate infield in 1977, his head pointed East at the behest of his owner, Kjell Qvale. In the Turf Club, a sprawling memorial adorns the wall for another revered champion, Lost in the Fog, the Eclipse winner who for one glorious summer in 2005 grounded the nation's quickest lightning bolts.

“That's one of the best memories we've had in Lost in the Fog. And Soviet Problem. She was pretty incredible,” says trainer Gloria Haley, perched in the rail-side shelter near the stable entrance, a wide-brimmed visor and Jackie O sunglasses giving her a certain presidential glamour.

Bred and owned by John Harris and Don Valpredo, Soviet Problem was another Greg Gilchrist high achiever, to go with Lost in the Fog. He shepherded her to 15 career wins, seven of them at Golden Gate. In 1994, only Cherokee Run's head stood between the Moscow Ballet mare and a win in the GI Breeders' Cup Sprint.   “Soviet Problem? I broke her,” says Jacqui Navarre, from the other end of the shelter. “Yeah, I broke her,” she adds, when Haley voices surprise.

“Quite a mare,” Haley says, under her breath.

Navarre is a multi-hyphenate who can't sit still. She's an exercise rider and trainer and she ponies on race day. She describes the imminent move of her five-horse stable to Pleasanton in resigned terms, familiar with the process but far from happy.

“We've seen it all before,” Navarre says, slowly nodding. In 1992, the closure of Longacres racetrack in Washington State drove her to Portland Meadows in Oregon. She moved to Golden Gate some 13 years ago, well before TSG closed Portland Meadows in 2019.

Navarre will dearly miss the place, she says–in particular, a surface that she says is as kind on a horse's legs as anywhere. Indeed, Golden Gate is year-in, year-out among the very safest tracks in the country. And she'll miss the community.

“We've been to so many tracks that close, but for some reason this one bothers me the most,” she says. “You know how it is in racing. You hate someone one minute, but you're good the next. At the end of the day, this is such a tight-knit group.”

Navarre gets to her feet, off to pony one in the next. “They say the view of the Bay from the men's room is spectacular,” she says, as she marches off, before adding: “Obviously, I've never been in there.”

It turns out the view is even better atop the entire grandstand, along the stretch of roof that Bill Downes takes before he calls the races from high up in his roost. He took the job at the end of last year. Six months isn't really long enough to lay down roots.

Bill Downes in the booth | Dan Ross

“Not really,” Downes replies, when asked if he's a lump-in-the-throat kind of guy.

Downes is already thinking about his next gigs, wherever they may be–just outside the door of his booth is the end of the world. Through the sturdy limbs of Golden Gate Bridge, the view is one that millions have taken in over the years, inspired and haunted by it, and always left wondering.

In a concrete bunker somewhere not too far from the simulcasting windows is the track's archive room. It's as dark in there as a Watergate break-in. The lights don't work. Shelves are lined with dusty videocassettes, left there from the days of Sam Spear, the former Bay Area sports media maven. But there are a few old cardboard boxes brimming with newspapers. Russell Baze smiles out from many of them. But not all.

“Did you see the film clip of Vice President Gore dancing with his wife?” a 70-year-old former rhythm-and-blues star called Charles Brown told the Oakland Tribune on opening day in 1993. “I was the one playing on the stage.”

Lost in the Fog, Shared Belief, Bold Chieftain–these are the Golden Gate headliners that main track superintendent, Juan Meza, 63, ticks off. But not for his favorite moments.

“Those are when I see every horse make it to the wire safe. Every morning, to see all the horses training with no injuries and no riders injured,” he says, beneath the shade of a tree at the north end of the facility. It's his favorite spot–from there, no stumble, jinx or fall anywhere on the track is hidden from his view. He's worked the surface for about 20 years.

There's a quiet carefulness about Meza, as though each thought has been chewed over a hundred times. A quiet determination, too. He's known to put in 25-hour days, one after the other.

“I take things really personal–really serious,” says Meza. “To me, time doesn't matter. I could spend day and night here. I do that because I love it. I do what it takes.”

Juan Meza | Dan Ross

Such bloody-mindedness, however, is hardly the recipe for marital bliss. “I've been lucky with my wife. She supports me 100%.

“Otherwise, it would be difficult,” Meza says.

General manager David Duggan's marriage to the track has been shorter and more tumultuous.

“I used to get cross at her,” says Duggan, at a Turf Club table, referring to the old track like it was the Queen Mary. “When we got a lot of rain or it didn't rain properly, I called her terrible names. But she was a very, very graceful track. She did a lot more than people realized.

Duggan helped put together a video–played at a recent backstretch farewell meal–showing the track's history since its 1941 launch. Its role as a naval landing equipment depot during WWII. Where Willie Shoemaker beat in 1953 the record for most wins in a single year. Where Noor cleared away from Triple Crown winner Citation to claim the 1950 Golden Gate Handicap.

The days and weeks after the very last race, however, “I think that's when it'll probably dawn on me,” Duggan says, of what is to befall the great old place, and the people who made it so.

All too soon Golden Gate Fields will be manned by a spartan army, figures scurrying here and there preparing for the auctioning off of memorabilia and equipment. They'll dismantle the rails and lock up the barn area.

Chained and padlocked, the place will echo with hollow footfalls and a wind that has blown across the Bay since the very first sunrise discovered this paradise. And the drivers on the I-580 will continue to pass by, oblivious to this locked tomb and the solitary freeway sign that had once signaled its life. Oblivious to what is. Oblivious to what was. Eyes forward, missing a race already lost.

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