Sunday, March 15, 2009

Bye the Bay Meadows

While straightening up a dresser drawer the other day I found a small metal money clip with the Bay Meadows logo on it. The shiny little gold colored artifact joins a Tee shirt I have, a few press guides and handouts in colorful file folders, and a few photos. That's what's left of the San Mateo thoroughbred track for me. That, and many recollections locked away in the starting gate of memory.
I've been carrying the money clip with a few bucks tucked in my front pocket these days. It reminds me of something I saw or experienced there every now and then. It can be difficult to say good-bye to a race track, even though the old guy was dying for quite a few years now. I'm not sure when my last visit to Bay Meadows was, maybe 4 or 5 years ago. I didn't know it was the last time I'd ever see the distinctive art deco facility. Probably better that way.
When I was covering stakes races for The Blood-Horse magazine there were some mighty long days at Bay Meadows. Sometimes on rainy evenings, after being on the wrong end of a photo finish and facing a 24 hr. deadline, Bay Meadows could be a stubborn friend. Sailing over the San Francisco skyline in my cozy Honda at sunset with a pocketful of money and a dozen great quotes from the likes of trainers like Ron McAnally, or D.Wayne Lukas, Richard Mandella, Bob Baffert, or Jerry Hollendorfer was particularly sweet. Even local trainers like Leonard Shoemaker or Jim Hilling easily made my day. Seeing and then talking to my favorite jockeys, like Gary Stevens, Chris McCarron and Laffit Pincay was never routine. Kent Desormeaux was unusually articulate. Russell Baze and Tom Chapman, two of Northern California's best stakes riders were always thoughtful, courteous, and available. Once in a while, another legend would come to town. Sure was glad when I remembered to talk to Lester Piggot in the correct ear, the one that wasn't deaf. And then there was The Shoe.
One Christmas I asked for and received a wonderful book called 100 Greatest Sports Heroes. I read and re-read the pages about Willie Shoemaker. Now 30 years and thousands of races later I was seeing and talking to Bill Shoemaker. One time at Golden Gate Fields, Shoe came north to ride Miswaki in a stakes race. He took a mount in the race right before the feature and came thundering down the lane to get up in the last jump. The crowd roared approval. I watched this race on the track apron near the winner's circle because it's very close to the walking ring and I wanted to begin taking notes for the upcoming big race as soon as the horses were brought to the saddling paddock. All the jockeys from the preceding race had weighed in and were walking back to the jock's room when Shoemaker arrived with the winner, dismounted, and walked to the scale. After weighing in, getting the OK from the clerk of the scales, he looked up and our eyes met.
"Easy game, huh?" Shoe said.
"Yeah," I replied dumfounded.
His smile said it all.
The last time I saw Shoe ride was at Bay Meadows a couple of years later. As luck would have it, Leonard Shoemaker (no relation) a friend was the sub-trainer. Out of the descending twilight both Shoemakers walked to the paddock. I needed to finish up something with another trainer, but quickly gave my camera to a friend of mine and said get this picture for me. I call it "A pair of Shoes."
A couple of years later Bill Shoemaker was permanently paralyzed in a car accident. After a brief career as a trainer, he died a few years later. Leonard Shoemaker fell on hard times too and retired as a trainer. But Bay Meadows gave me that wonderful gift: an unforgettable pair of Shoes.

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