A morning at Golden Gate Fields: Thoroughbreds, luck and the future of Northern California racing

Ed Moger, a Richmond resident and horse trainer, sat alone among the rows of grandstand seats high above Golden Gate Fields.

One hand grasped a stopwatch and the other pressed binoculars to his eyes as he scanned the bustling track, waiting for his horses to come out for an early gallop.

It was a cold, dreary morning in the Bay Area, but Golden Gate Fields was wide-awake. At 6 a.m., the skies may have been dark, but the track glowed with a celestial light.

Exercise jockeys gallop their horses along the inside rail. The color of a horse's saddle, leg wraps, bridle and other tack often indicate its owner or training barn.The riders are allowed to wear whatever color they like. (photo by: Lexi Pandell)

Moger enjoys working while most of the world is still sound asleep. His affinity for mornings is useful at a track that requires horses to finish exercising before 10 a.m. so races can start by the early afternoon.

Overhead, the dawn revealed heavy, menacing clouds. Golden Gate Fields is the only year-round California track north of Bakersfield, and its synthetic footing can withstand storms. Still, nobody particularly wanted to get rained on.

Moger, a longtime fixture at the track, recalled the days before the new turf was installed.

“Sometimes with the rain, it would get this deep,” he said, gesturing about a foot with his hands. “It was tough.”

His eyes followed the field as Lady’s Plan, a bay two-year-old filly that Moger bred and owns, flitted down the track. She was due to race later in the week. One of his three-year-old colts, Curly Boy, came out next. Like Lady’s Plan, Curly Boy would gallop one and a half miles after a quick warm-up.

Both horses wore Moger’s signature green saddle pads and synthetic bridles, which matched Moger’s puffy jacket. He shifted slightly in his faded jeans and beat-up tennis shoes to get a better look at how the horses were working that morning, mostly keeping his eyes on Lady’s Plan and Curly Boy, but also checking out some other horses.

“All of them are a bit different,” he said of their training plan. “We try to breeze them four, five, six days before [a race]. Some you jog and go easy, some you give strong gallops because they’ll want more.”

Moger, 55, moved to Richmond a few years ago. His career began as a groom while he attended the University of Washington in the 1970s. He had always loved horses and, once he got a job on the track, he left school and never looked back.

In 1976, he started training his thoroughbreds at Bay Meadows in San Mateo, the longest continually operating racetrack in California where many of the world’s greatest racehorses — including the legendary Seabiscuit — competed.

The Bay Meadows track, grandstand and clubhouse were demolished in 2008, leaving Golden Gate Fields as the sole year-round track in Northern California. Since then, the land has been redeveloped. And there are plenty of plans floating around that propose history repeating itself for Golden Gate Fields.

Among them is the relocation of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Albany is one of the six finalists in the bidding for the lab‘s second campus. If the city is chosen, the track will be torn down for the new lab site. Albany doesn’t seem like one of the top contenders — competing cities include Richmond, which has land that the University of California already owns, and Alameda, which would offer land for free.

Golden Gate Fields’ owners stated that they want to relocate the track if the property were ever purchased. But nothing has been set in stone and the lag between the old track’s demolition and new track’s construction could leave many workers displaced or temporarily unemployed.

Rumors around the track postulate that the lab won’t buy Golden Gate Fields, Moger said.

“I hope they’re right,” he added.

But even if they are, it’s probably not the final threat. With its location on 140 acres of prime bay front land, there will always be someone waiting to snatch up Golden Gate Fields.

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Weak daylight tried to break through just past 7 a.m., but thick clouds rushed to cover it and rain began to fall in thin streaks.

Some of the horses on the track galloped down the stretch in “company,” running side-by-side. Trainers use this exercise strategy because horses may be lazy and need extra encouragement, or because the horses are young and need the experience to prepare for competition. A few horses ate up the ground with each stride, while others cruised along at their own pace or hopped beneath their exercise riders in excitement. With every step, they blew deliberate, audible puffs through flared nostrils.

These thoroughbreds are working in "company." The riders will keep the horses at the same pace or will encourage them to race each other. (photo by: Lexi Pandell)

The sun finally peeked through the clouds, briefly warming some of the chill from the air and shining a new light on the field below.

From the grandstands, you can see towering glass buildings, the winding freeway and colorful houses clinging to the Berkeley hills. It’s easy to see why so many groups would like to take over this bayside location.

“I tell everybody that there’s a room in the back [of the grandstands],” Moger said. “Best view of the Bay Area. You can see everything.”

Many developers hope it will be their chance to seize Golden Gate Fields, in part, because horse racing in Northern California has changed, and declined, in the last decade. The purses are smaller, people are betting less, fewer horses are being bred nationwide and the cost of training has gone up.

With a lively racing scene in Southern California, many trainers have set their focus there.

The Del Mar Racetrack outside San Diego, for example, operates seasonally just seven weeks a year. “It’s pretty packed every day,” Moger said. And the purses are big — up to $600,000 per day as compared to about $130,000 at Golden Gate Fields.

“People in San Diego are waiting for it,” Moger said. “It’s open in August, which is a good time. And there’s vacationers.”

The Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, owned by the same group as Golden Gate Fields, offers some of the most prestigious races in the United States.

“Santa Anita is classic,” said Moger, who runs some of his horses in the seasonal Southern California races. “It’s an old, traditional racetrack and it’s in a beautiful area.”

The 70-year-old Golden Gate Fields, too, has its history. Triple Crown winners have raced there, Lost in the Fog — a Breeders’ Cup winner and subject of a documentary — lived there and the location was even filmed as a crime scene in the 1941 film Shadow of the Thin Man.

And it has its defenders, those like Moger who would keep it the way it is.

After most of his horses have worked, Moger headed toward his barn through muddy rows of stalls and past horses cooling down on hot walkers. Most people working with his horses sported the same jacket as Moger, green with “Ed Moger Jr.” stitched in an electric lime on the back.

Grooms hosed down the freshly worked thoroughbreds and steam curled up in tendrils from their haunches.

Surrounded by the smell of wet hay and warm horses, Moger discussed the rest of the day with his exercise riders and staff.

“How’d we work?” Moger asked as a trainer from a different barn walked up. The two had decided to work a pair of their horses in tandem that morning.

“Good,” the trainer said. “They make a good company.”

Russell Baze, the winningest jockey in North American history, was strolling down the barn aisles not long after when Moger called him over.

“Thanks for the win the other day,” Moger said.

“Well, thank you,” Baze replied, smiling.

Baze, who is still racing at 53, was inducted into the United States Racing Hall of Fame in 1999 and has won more than 11,000 races in his career.

Moger and Baze chatted for a minute before Moger turned his attention back to his barn.

Moger owns and co-owns most of the thoroughbreds in his training program. He bred many of them at his farm in Galt, where he also rehabilitates injured racehorses. These thoroughbreds are working animals, but Moger also considers them his pets.

He walked through the barn with a bucketful of Mrs. Pasture’s equine treats and horses began to pop their heads out of their stalls, peering at the cookies.

“I could keep Mrs. Pasture’s in business,” he joked, handing a bite-sized nugget to each horse.

Moger’s horses greeted him with soft eyes beneath their long forelocks, sticking their noses out for attention. He rubbed every one on the face, crouching down or ducking into stalls to feel some horses’ legs for anything unusual. In this industry, a horse’s legs are everything.

It was 8:20 when Moger realized he had a couple more thoroughbreds to work. He strode back to the grandstand while a little gray named Argento’s Frost and another horse were saddled.

Moger multitasked, watching the horses through his binoculars by the track rail while he talked on his smartphone.

Each passing step of a galloping horse reverberates through the ground and straight into the onlooker’s chest. It’s a sound that you feel more than you hear, a second heartbeat that overpowers the occasional crisp slaps of whips against horses’ rumps, the whoosh of the nearby freeway, the quiet mumbling of trainers, the thin beep of stopwatches.

Racing is not always a profitable sport. The best horses can bring in millions in purse money and stud fees, but many owners are content just to have a year where they make any money at all. The business of horse racing, like betting on horse racing, is a gamble. You definitely need some luck.

Golden Gate Fields has adapted to the current economic environment as best as it can. Sunday Dollar Days, where everything from admission to hotdogs cost just a dollar, draw a large crowd each week. The track also offers inclusive group packages, online guides to racing for new fans and discounted admission for frequent visitors.

“There are some incentives on [California bred horses] and we have to bottom out on this recession I would think,” Moger said.

The clouds spilled out over the track again, leaving the ground coated in puddles and the watching trainers splattered with raindrops. The skies lightened, less burdened by their load, but there was certainly more rain to come.

Horse racing, and particularly Northern California racing, will go through some changes before its fate becomes clear. An announcement on whether the lab will move to Golden Gate Fields or not is expected in early 2012. Unlikely as it is, it’s one more threat to an industry that’s struggling to pull through.

Like the sport itself, success might have to rely on a little luck.

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