In December 1851, a tremulous and sickly traveller arrived at San Francisco harbour, having made a long and gruelling journey across the Pacific from Australia. Tremulous and exhausted from the punishing voyage, the globetrotter was greeted by a large crowd.
Who was this émigré that drew such interest? It was no star of the stage, nor a great adventurer, nor a European royal. The new arrival was, in fact, a horse, and the event has gone down in history as the entry of the first Thoroughbred into California. Black Swan, as the mare was named, set racing in the Golden State on fire. Her decisive win in 1852 over prized Spanish stallion Sarco in a nine-mile contest captured the imagination of the West Coast, and prompted the importation of a stream of Thoroughbreds.
San Francisco and its environs grew to become a centre of Thoroughbred racing and breeding and the home of a succession of racecourses. Continuing an occasional series on lost tracks, this article explores the bygone circuits of the Bay Area.
Pioneer Race Track
The history of organised racing in San Francisco begins with the Pioneer Race Track, opened on March 24, 1851. In the age of the Gold Rush, California was booming, as fortune hunters from every continent flocked to the area. The population of San Francisco rocketed from 1,000 to more than 20,000 between 1848 and 1850 alone. Those who struck lucky were not shy in demonstrating their new wealth, and budding entrepreneurs grasped opportunities to share this largesse. Amongst these was the horse racing enthusiast George Treat.
Treat established Pioneer in Mission Dolores, a suburban district popular amongst San Franciscans as a weekend resort. The track, a straight-sided oval, was built on wet, springy land, which was believed to provide a faster surface. It was here that Black Swan and Sarco made California racing history.
However, Pioneer did not last long. In late 1861 and early 1862, the track served as “Camp Alert,” a base for Civil War volunteers, and in 1863 the land was sold to the San Francisco Homestead Association for $500 per acre.
Bay District Racing Track
By the late 1800s, racing had become a part of the Californian culture and a spate of racecourses opened in the second half of the century. Despite the sport’s popularity, the early tracks enjoyed mixed fortunes, beset by rising land values, anti-gambling crusaders, and bitter rivalries. The Bay District Racing Track was one such example.
In 1873, a group of wealthy San Franciscans banded together to establish Bay District, a one-mile circuit in the Richmond district at the northwest corner of the city. Its founders had grand ambitions, and large sums were spent to create a lavishly appointed facility. Some two months after opening in September 1873, the track ran a $25,000 race, a purse then unprecedented in America.
Nonetheless, Bay District quickly met with difficulties. The surging growth of San Francisco was creating mounting demand for land for residential development. Meanwhile, a crash in the silver market swiftly ended its founders’ initial largesse, and the track’s physical environment soon sunk into a steady decline.
However, Bay District found a saviour in the young and enterprising Thomas Williams. In 1890, he purchased the course, and pioneered its comeback. Whereas it had previously specialised in harness racing, Williams changed its focus to the Thoroughbred, and for six years the track rang with the thunder of hooves.
Bay District, though, was not to last. As early as 1891, local residents were clamouring for its closure, arguing that its acreage should be opened up for housing. Moreover, in 1895, another obstacle arrived in the form of a rival track, opened by Williams’s one-time friend Ed Corrigan.
Corrigan, a Chicago businessman and owner of Hawthorne Race Course in Illinois, had previously patronised Bay District. However, after a virulent quarrel with Williams, Corrigan sought retaliation by building his own racecourse, Ingleside Race Track.
Bay District was doomed. It held its last race on May 27, 1896. Two years later, residential streets were being cut across its infield.
Ingleside Race Track
Corrigan, meanwhile, was enjoying greater success. On Thanksgiving Day in 1895, 12,000 people braved heavy rain to attend the inaugural meeting at Ingleside Race Track, an occasion that the San Francisco Call heralded as the “inauguration of a new era in racing.”
Contemporaries enthusiastically welcomed its facilities. A 5,000-capacity grandstand was built to a simple yet serviceable design in steel, glass, and wood. It comprised a single tier of raked seating covered by a large gable roof, with bars, dining rooms, and a generous betting ring below. Alongside stood an opulent Spanish Revival clubhouse. The Southern Pacific Railroad built a special line up to its front door.
However, Ingleside was not immune to increasing anti-gambling sentiment. On March 13, 1899, wagering on racing in San Francisco was banned, forcing Ingleside’s closure two days later. To keep afloat, the track experimented with an unfamiliar type of racing: motor racing. In 1900, it hosted the first automobile race in California.
Ingleside reopened for Thoroughbred racing in 1901, but from thenceforth until 1905 it was held only in fits and starts amidst periodic motor races. The devastating 1906 San Francisco earthquake finally shuttered Ingleside for good. In 1910, the land was sold for development and transformed into the now-sought-after residential neighbourhood, Ingleside Terraces, where the shape of the racetrack lives on as Urbano Drive.
Oakland Race Track
Corrigan may have emerged as the victor in his battle with Williams for supremacy in San Francisco racing, but the latter was not defeated yet. In 1896, Williams had also acquired an aging trotting facility across the Bay at Emeryville.
Oakland Trotting Park had been founded as a venue for harness racing in 1871. The track had been attended by Ulysses S. Grant in earlier days and witnessed record-breaking racing, but, not hosting Thoroughbreds, it failed to turn a profit. Nonetheless, Williams was determined to transform it.
He immediately demolished Oakland’s “rough-board, white-washed, dusty, insecure old grandstand,” to use the description of TheBreeder and Sportsman. In its place, an architectural programme of an ambition never before seen at a racecourse in northern California was erected.
The complex, under the auspices of the New California Jockey Club, featured exotic architecture by M. J. Lyons. The grandstand was a Japoniste fantasy, reported by TheBreeder and Sportsman as the “most tastefully arranged, unique piece of grandstand architecture in this country.” The building was 240 feet long, with the capacity to seat 3,500, and featured a low-slung tiled canopy roof, surmounted by a Japanese pavilion. Underneath the single tier of raked seating was a large betting ring with 20 kiosks, a spacious bar and restaurant. To the rear, a promenade the length of the grandstand overlooked San Francisco Bay.
Alongside the grandstand stood a clubhouse, measuring 50 feet by 75 feet. Here, Lyons adopted an Anglo-Indo mien. The two-storey building featured arabesque turrets capped by bulging onion domes, and was enfolded by an elaborately decorated arcade. Inside, was a café in the “early English style,” with timber ceilings and open fireplaces. As if the combination of Japanese, East Indian, and English motifs was not enough, the saddling paddock was conceived in a Mexican style.
Williams’ track was a generally successful enterprise, until, that is, 1909 when racing in the state came to an abrupt halt. On Feb. 5, following mounting anti-gambling sentiment, the California Senate passed the Walker Otis Anti-Racetrack Gambling Bill, effectively signing the death warrant for Thoroughbred racing.
Oakland continued to be used for motorcar racing and aerial displays until 1915, when demolition work began. However, the remaining structures caught fire and burned to the ground before the job was done.
Tanforan Race Track
Tanforan Race Track opened Nov. 5, 1899 on a 142-acre site in San Bruno. The location - 12 miles outside the city - was chosen to circumvent the 1899 San Francisco gambling ban.
Its facilities were considered state-of-the-art, with a track that promised to offer one of the fastest three-quarters-of-a-mile courses in the world. “One new feature called forth a good deal of favourable comment,” recorded the Sacramento Daily Union on Tanforan’s opening day, “and this is the remarkably plain view of the race one can have without leaving the betting ring.”
Many of the country’s most prominent owners raced their horses at Tanforan, including Leland Stanford, George Hearst, and Charlie Fair. The 1909 Walker-Otis Act, though, put an end to Thoroughbred racing at Tanforan and all other California tracks. Nine years later, the racecourse was razed.
This, however, was not the end for racing at Tanforan. In 1923, the racecourse experienced the first of several resurrections. That year, horse owner and racing grandee Adolph R. Spreckles financed the construction of a grandstand and an adjacent clubhouse. The large clubhouse, with its high, heavy-beamed ceilings, large windows, and great stone fireplace provided a luxurious setting from which to watch the races.
For two 25-day seasons, Tanforan was alive once more with the thrill of the race. However, betting remained prohibited in California and, without wagering, it was impossible to turn a profit. After the 1924 meeting, Tanforan closed its doors again.
In the late 1920s, the racecourse changed hands. Undeterred by the anti-gambling legislation, new owner John Marchbank reopened Tanforan in 1930. The racecourse provided a complex “options” system of wagering whereby one bought what was effectively a share of stock in the racehorse, which could be sold for a profit if it won.
The season was a great success. Crowds up to 25,000 strong attended, conclusively proving public support for the Sport of Kings. Still, without wagering, the racecourse was not financially sustainable and racing was not recommenced in 1931.
Finally, in 1933, legalised betting resumed in California with the passing of the Woolwine-Maloney Bill. A Thoroughbred renaissance had begun in the Golden State, and Tanforan was at its head. Phar Lap acclimatised at Tanforan following his fateful arrival in the U.S. in 1932; Seabiscuit was stabled there between 1935 and 1937, and won the Marchbank Handicap in 1937; and Citation set a record in the Tanforan Handicap in 1948.
World War II brought darker times. When the U.S. entered the conflict in 1941, racing at Tanforan was suspended and the track was given over to a very different purpose. Between April and October 1942, it was converted into a Japanese internment camp. Some 7,500 San Francisco Bay Area residents were confined there, many forced to live in the hastily converted grandstands and horse stables. Stalls designed to hold a single Thoroughbred housed as many as five adults.
Tanforan reopened for racing in 1945, but struggled to match its pre-war heyday. Competition from other racetracks, the advent of television, and changing public pastimes contributed to a steady downward trend in attendance. In March 1964, Tanforan was sold to Sunset International Petroleum Corporation for commercial redevelopment. Four months later, fire swept through its buildings and completely destroyed the venue, marking the final demise of the Lazarus of racecourses.
Bay Meadows Racetrack
Of all the Bay Area’s lost tracks, amongst the famous and most mourned is that of Bay Meadows; it is certainly that freshest to memory. Until its closure in 2008, it was not only California’s oldest racecourse in constant operation, but also its most progressive. It introduced the automatic totalisator to the West Coast, pioneered the electric, fully-enclosed starting gate and photo-finish camera, and in 1945, hosted El Lobo, the first horse to travel by air to a race, who, after landing on the airstrip adjacent to the track, went on to triumph in the Burlingame Handicap.
Bay Meadows was the brainchild of Bill Kyne, one of the principal champions of the successful campaign to legalise pari-mutuel betting in California in 1933. Less than a year after the passage of the Woolwine-Maloney Bill, Kyne broke ground on the site of the former Curtis-Wright airport. After 209 days of construction, Bay Meadows opened to a crowd of 15,000 on Nov. 4, 1934.
The track was fast, a mile-long oval with a half-chute, and was overlooked by a grandstand and clubhouse capable of seating 6,500. The steel and concrete grandstand ran 400 feet in length, with three levels of tiered seating. Its façade was adorned with Art Deco detailing, a feature shared by the timber-framed, stucco-clad clubhouse. This was smaller than the grandstand, at 123 feet in length, and mostly occupied by a single club room. The totalisator was a major attraction at the course; Kyne called it his “mechanical preventative of racetrack chicanery.”
Under Kyne’s tenure, Bay Meadows enjoyed success after success. It drew celebrities of the equine world such as Seabiscuit, Citation, Determine, John Longden, and Bill Shoemaker, watched by the celebrities of Hollywood including Al Jolson, Mae West, Clark Gable, and Bing Crosby.
Thanks to Kyne’s negotiations with the federal government, Bay Meadows remained open throughout World War II, the only major racecourse on the West Coast sanctioned to do so. Certain conditions were imposed upon it, though, not least that 92 percent of profits be donated to the war effort. By 1945, more than $4 million had thereby been raised.
Bay Meadows’ 1949 season welcomed a $1.2 million remodelling. With a new clubhouse, private turf club, and grandstand extension, its capacity was doubled to 40,000. Also including a new saddling paddock, fireproof horse barns, and new landscaping, the renovation prompted the Stockton Record to proclaim Bay Meadows “one of the most elaborate racing plants in the world.”
With racing schedules spread between northern and southern California, Bay Meadows consistently drew high-quality horses and jockeys, and the crowds followed. However, gradually the southern California season grew more profitable and longer in length, and attention shifted away from the Bay Area. By the early 1980s, Bay Meadows was struggling.
In 1986, a four-year remodelling project commenced in a bid to rekindle the track’s 1930s glamour. The renovation proved no magic fix – in the face of stockholder infighting, competition for fixtures, and the declining popularity of the sport, the track experienced difficulties throughout the 1990s. Investors vied for control of the land, and by the 2000s rumours circulated about Bay Meadows’ closure.
The death knell came with a 2006 mandate from the California Horse Racing Board requiring that major dirt tracks in the state be replaced with synthetic surfaces. Unable to meet the installation costs of up to $10 million, Bay Meadows was scheduled for demolition. On Aug. 17, 2008, 8,000 patrons attended the final day of live racing at the track and bid farewell to California’s oldest continuously-operated racecourse.
‘Bay Meadows Nears Finish’, San Mateo County Times, 7 August 2008.
M. Dobkin, ‘Historic Architecture Evaluation: The Bay Meadows Racetrack’, City of San Mateo, July 2004.
W. Robertson, The History of Thoroughbred Racing in America, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1964.
‘Tanforan Assembly Center Remembered’, San Mateo Daily Journal, 15 December 2005.
‘The Oakland Racing Park’, The Breeder and Sportsman, 6 June 1896.