The Glory And The Decline Of Golden Gate Fields

Written By Dave Bontempo on June 14, 2024
Horses racing at Golden Gate Fields, which closed for good after 83 years.

It’s another sweet and somber farewell.

Golden Gate Fields became the latest of many California horse racing business casualties last Sunday, closing after an 83-year run in the San Francisco suburb of Berkeley.

Golden Gate Fields’ demise caused by complicated set of circumstances

It’s tempting to pin the demise on animal-rights groups that protested some racing deaths. Or the uneven economy.

But it’s more realistic to reference the unsustainable business model drastically lowering the number of live-racing establishments over the past four decades: they can’t generate enough money.

Golden Gates Fields was sacrificed by its owners, the Stronach Group. The group will invest the resources from this track in its operations in Southern California, primarily Santa Anita, in Arcadia. The ownership believes it can derive more money from Santa Anita than Golden Gate.

And so, boom, it’s done.

The move was dubbed “consolidation,” even though it means “elimination” for the  Golden Gate circuit.

To detail Golden Gate Fields’ journey, we’ll divide this piece into two categories: Memories and Money.

Golden Gate Fields: Memories


Ahh, there are many, representing a more prosperous time.

Silky Sullivan

He was the greatest come-from-behind horse of all time. He was known for spotting the field more than 25 lengths and then bolting from dead last to the winner’s circle. He once rallied from 41 lengths to capture a race. On December 7, 1957, he won the one-mile Golden Gate Futurity after making up 27 lengths.

Fans serenaded him with birthday and Christmas cards. He was the most famous animal to step foot at Golden Gate and is synonymous with winning despite long odds. He’s also been referenced in television shows and movies.

The famous Silky Sullivan and Lost in the Fog are buried in the infield.

Watch a YouTube video of Silky Sullivan while this footage exists. Entertaining and must-see.


Triple Crown winner Citation (carrying 128 pounds) won the 1950 Golden Gate Mile Handicap, finishing a mile in a world-record time of 1:33.60. Like most records, it was made to be broken. It was later eclipsed by Dr. Fager in 1:32.20 in 1968.

Hitting Seven Figures

In 1970, A 55-day spring season ended with an average daily handle of $1,019,929, the first seven-figure mark in track history.

One Magical Day

On March 5, 1977,  a crowd of 26,108 watched jockey Steve Cauthen ride Make Amends, who finished 10th behind Cuzwuzwrong in the California Derby. The program has a modern handle record of $3,017,424.

Hitting Two Million

On May 6, 1984, John Henry, 9, won the Golden Gate Handicap in course-record time of 2:13 for 1 3/8 miles. That was part of a campaign that led to a second Horse of the Year title. The meeting concluded with a record average daily handle of $2,004,409.

Bay Meadows Closes

On Aug 17, 2008, Bay Meadows in San Mateo, Calif., approximately 33 miles from Golden Gate Fields, ran its final day of racing after a 74-year existence. That left Golden Gate Fields as the only major track in the Bay Area and hurt the major racing circuit. There was no more continuity between venues, nothing to keep the racing season in bettors’ minds all year long. It’s difficult to determine how much this hurt Golden Gate, but it did.

The Great Russell Baze

Russell Baze, 57, finished second on Wahine Warrior in the last race on the program, the final day of the winter-spring meeting. It happened on June 12, 2016.  Baze shocked the racing community by announcing his retirement. Baze ended his career with 12,842 wins, the most in North American history.

That record still stands. Baze is in the United States Racing Hall of Fame.

Rumbling Rombauer

In 2021, Rumbling Rombauer won his 3-year-old debut in the El Camino Real Derby. Two starts later, Rombauer scored an upset win at 11-1 in the Grade 1 Preakness Stakes in May.

That was really the last shot fired by Golden Gate Fields on the national circuit.

Golden Gate Fields: The Money

What happened? Start with the handle figures, exceeding $2 million daily in their 1984 zenith. That was just on track.

Numbers plummeted so much that an average “all-sources” handle (simulcasting, etc) of $350,000 became an excellent performance.

The vicious cycle

Here’s how the vicious cycle works: Trainers invest heavily in food, storage, training and medical treatment for their horses, whom they run to recoup this investment. They seek the highest purse money.

The track needs to entice trainers with high purse money, but can’t if people aren’t betting enough. People don’t bet enough when the fields are small and the takeout percentages are too large, often running from 20-25 percent on exotic bets (exactas, trifectas, superfectas).

This cycle caused many smaller tracks to close. Think of Suffolk Downs in Boston, Mass, Rockingham Park in New Hampshire, Calder and Hialeah Park in Florida and even Arlington Park, home of the Arlington Million, in Illinois.

New Jersey tracks were hit hard too. Atlantic City Race Course and Garden State Park met the axe. Monmouth Park, in Oceanport, exists because of a state subsidy and a reduced racing schedule. It ‘s doing fairly well now, but without help, it was gone.

And that wasn’t all. Many simulcast facilities shut down throughout the state. People are betting on their phones through services like FanDuel Racing. They don’t need to congregate.

Help is on the way

With the advent of legalized sports betting, “Help” has arrived in many states. Over time, money spent by gamblers will work its way to the race tracks themselves. That may be realized with help from the states or lucrative partnerships with sports-betting entities.

By any measure, it will help.

But the sinking of Prop 26 and 27 discourages the potential life raft coming to any California racing establishment.

The Stronach Group thus illustrated the pattern gripping horse racing: there will be fewer race tracks; only the strong will survive; and remote betting, which saved the horse-racing industry during Covid 19, will fuel whichever tracks remain.

It is, for many, a sad reality. Yet it ‘s also the pattern of a larger world.

We can be sad about the passing of a beloved institution like Golden Gate. But not surprised.

Photo by Eric Risberg / AP Images
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Dave Bontempo

Dave Bontempo is a writer for PlayCA, and has covered the horse racing and boxing industry extensively since the 1980s. He was an award-winning writer at the Press of Atlantic City. As a broadcaster, he has won the Sam Taub Award for Excellence in Boxing Broadcasting, issued by the Boxing Writers Association of America. He has called major fights for HBO, ESPN, Showtime, and other networks since the 1980s. He is in the New Jersey and Atlantic City Boxing Halls of Fame. Dave shifted gears to cover the emerging legalized sports-betting industry in 2018. He now serves as the go-to authority on horse race betting across multiple websites, including PlayCA and California Casinos.

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