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Berkeley’s Golden Gate Fields racetrack to close down in October

Horses compete during the Summer Races at Golden Gate Fields in September 2018. | Cody Glenn/Getty Images

Berkeley's own Golden Gate Fields will close down for good this fall, meaning the days are numbered for the Bay Area's last major racetrack.

The announcement came from the Stronach Group, the management company that runs the iconic horse racing arena. It said it plans to refocus on Southern California venues, boosting field sizes and adding a day to at least one venue's racing calendar.

“The future success of racing depends on a business model that encourages investment in Southern California, one of North America's premier racing circuits," said Belinda Stronach, chief executive and chairman of the company, in a statement Sunday.

Stronach said the group's shift to concentrate on Santa Anita Park in Arcadia in Los Angeles County and its San Luis Rey Downs training site in Bonsall in San Diego County was "vital to ensuring that California racing can continue to compete and thrive on a national level."

She conceded that the move to close the track at the end of the 2023 racing meet could have "profound effects" on the jockeys, owners, trainers and stable personnel in the Northern California horse racing world, including on some employees who have worked at the track for more than 50 years. She said the group was "committed to honoring labor obligations and developing a meaningful transition plan" with help from industry groups to aid relocation efforts.

The closure comes as the sport has been rocked by controversy in recent years. A string of horse deaths at the Santa Anita racetrack starting in 2019 led to the passage in 2021 of stricter new national safety standards.

Golden Gate Fields has also seen its share of tragedies in the last several years. According to state horse racing board data, 15 horses died at Golden Gate Fields in 2022, and an ABC7 news report last month said at least seven others had died through late April.

In 2020, a national blood-doping scandal led to the indictment of 27 people

Marty Irby, a senior advisor at the Animal Wellness Foundation, an organization that advocates for animal welfare, said Sunday he was not surprised to learn of the plans to close the Bay Area's last racetrack, which opened in 1941. Bay Meadows, the San Mateo track that opened eight years earlier, was shuttered in 2008.

"It's no surprise to hear that they're closing," Irby said. "I've said for a long time that if racing as a sport doesn't clean up its act, it's going to go the way of the dodo bird."

California has taken additional steps to regulate horse racing in the last few years. Gov. Gavin Newsom instituted a policy of not appointing members to the California Horse Racing Board who own horses themselves.

The state horse racing board said in a press release issued earlier this month that 26 horses died from injuries during racing and training at state facilities during the fiscal year that ended June 30, down from 39 the previous year.

But deaths by non-exercise-related injuries rose from 66 last year to 69 this year, with 26 suffering musculoskeletal injuries and 43 suffering other common causes of death, including gastrointestinal and respiratory diseases.

On Monday, Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín called the closure an "unexpected announcement" before striking a hopeful note about working with the city of Albany and other "stakeholders" on the 140-acre site's future.

"While it is too early to speculate what will replace Golden Gate Fields, priority right now must be on ensuring that workers are made whole and supported and that the horses are given proper care and relocation during the closure," Arreguín said in part.

George Kelly can be reached at gkelly@sfstandard.com