How Golden Gate Fields' Opening for Horse Racing Impacts Athletics & Coliseum

Horse racing has begun to open, without fans, at tracks in California. The path those tracks are blazing set a path that baseball will have to follow, and teams like the Athletics may find some tough love coming from the counties that must sign off for any projected reopening.
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On May 15, Golden Gate Fields on the Albany/Berkeley border on the shore of San Francisco Bay reopened for horse racing, without fans but with a full slate of races.

The Oakland Coliseum, which sits 13 miles due south, has yet to open for the 2020 Major League Baseball season. There will be lessons that the Oakland A’s and MLB will be able to take from the GGF opening.

And they may not be lessons the baseball types will want to hear.

Sam Spear, who has been the director of media relations for Golden Gate Fields and who is best known in the Bay Area as the face and the voice of horse racing with the weekly television and radio shows on the sport that he does, has a unique knowledge of the overlap.

For a decade between 1995 and 2005, Spear spent time working for the A’s as a top lieutenant to then-owner Steve Schott.

“Off the top, baseball came up with this 67-page report on the health and safety of the players and staff,” Spear said. “It was very restrictive. Horse racing didn’t do anything like that.”

That’s not to say that Golden Gate Fields executives downplayed the safety and health issues. In their negotiations with the Alameda County Public Health Department, the plan has been extremely restrictive.

It’s not just that there are no spectators for the races. Jockey agents aren’t on the ground and do their work remotely. Horse owners aren’t on the premises, either. Those who don’t have to be onsite aren’t. 

The workers who have to be there to care for the horses are checked every day for traces of the COVID-19 coronavirus. So are the jockeys and the trainers, all subject to the wearing of masks. Everybody else checks in from afar, and that includes executives like Spear.

Would that mean that the A’s executives who are used to being at the park daily like executive vice president Billy Beane, general manager David Forst and their brain trust have to watch from afar? Maybe, because there can be no opening without the consent of the Alameda County PHD.

The GGF athletes themselves, the horses, aren’t likely to either contract or pass along COVID-19 according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And the horses don’t have a union to plead their case. Neither of those is true in baseball, where players are as just another population subject to the coronavirus and the players’ association has to approve a path forward if there is going to be a baseball season.

And then there is the matter of rent. It’s not an issue at the race track, but the A’s deferred payment of their $1.2 million rent in April, and until it’s paid, there won’t be any baseball at the Coliseum. The A’s used a clause in their contract with the Coliseum Authority to defer because while the Coliseum was a possible short-term overflow medical facility during the midst of the pandemic.

“With the A’s at the Coliseum, they have got to clear up this rent dispute,” former A’s, Warriors and 49ers executive Andy Dolich said. Dolich, who was with the A’s from 1980-94 and who is currently a professor at Stanford, said the larger question is “how baseball is presented.”

“The social distancing at a track like Golden Gate Fields is one thing, but it’s different at a baseball park,” Dolich said. “What are the A’s going to do to be able to create excitement in an empty ballpark? They don’t have to create that excitement for horse racing. Social distancing in horse racing is bad, unless you have an exacta or trifecta ticket.”

David Duggan, the GGF general manager, said the process to get the race track reopened after it was shuttered on April 2 took much of the six weeks the track was closed.

“We had ongoing dialogue with the health department and all of the necessary agencies for quite some time,” Duggan told the San Francisco Chronicle. “We were able to provide a robust, comprehensive plan with no spectators and limited staff.

“The county determined on the basis of what we provided that we would be a low-risk business.”

It will take some doing for the A’s, or any Major League team, to prove that.

Race tracks, like ballparks, have multiple uses. Last year at this time, GGF converted its turf club into Northern California’s largest bingo parlor, raising money for area nonprofits. That’s a non-starter now. Supercross dirt bike racing and monster truck competitions were held in the Coliseum in February, the last large events there. Had either been scheduled for March or later, they would have been canceled.

And it’s likely there will be issues for the networks televising baseball that weren’t considerations at a horse racing facility.

Dolich also pointed out that horses don’t talk and that while jockeys do, they generally can’t be heard over the pounding of hooves. On a baseball field with in a fanless stadium, that won’t be the case. The chatter is part of what makes baseball baseball.

“What will you be able to hear that the TV types won’t be able to be bleeped out?” Dolich asked. “That’s going to be a problem.”

Spear points out that the reopening of facilities in California will be on a county-by-county basis. Of the five California-based MLB teams, only the Giants are in a county, San Francisco, that doesn’t offer a race track.

So, in addition to the A’s following in the wake of the opening of Golden Gate Fields, Dodger Stadium, located in Los Angeles County will follow the recently reopened Santa Anita Park race track and it will the same for Angel Stadium, located near Los Alamitos Race Course in Orange County.

There’s no rush on getting Del Mar Race Course in San Diego County open, because the season doesn’t start until mid-July, so the Padres might have to get clearance from San Diego County health authorities to open Petco Park before Del Mar’s first race, currently scheduled for July 18.

“Each individual county has to approve of the activity,” Spear said. “What works in one county might not in another. It will be an ongoing process.”

Baseball is just now making its first tentative steps in the process.

Follow Athletics insider John Hickey on Twitter: @JHickey3

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