Historic Berkeley race track holds final event. Animal-welfare groups pleased to see it go

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webnexttech | Historic Berkeley race track holds final event. Animal-welfare groups pleased to see it go
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ALBANY — The latest unexplained death of a horse this past week at Golden Gate Fields did not appear to detract from a festive celebration Sunday on the historic race track’s final day of operations. The closure brings to an end yet another piece of the Bay Area’s racing tradition. Another historic track, Bay Meadows in the Peninsula, closed in 2008 after 74 years. Longtime enthusiasts who filled the 140-acre grounds were treated to a lunch buffet, a commemorative last race and the chance to say goodbye to the East Bay’s only official equine-racing venue, where thousands of horses had competed since its opening in 1941. Outside, near the north entrance, Rocky Chau, an anti-racing activist, clutched a Golden Gate Fields mug he’d saved from a visit to the track with his father in the 1990s. Then he chucked it to the ground, watching it shatter. The piercing sound, audible over the noisy nearby highway, briefly startled Chau’s fellow participants in an otherwise carefully orchestrated public funeral for an estimated 2,000 horses that have died during the track’s 83-year history. “Animals feel pain, just like us; they feel love, just like us!” chanted the protesters, carrying plastic-white carnations, a fake coffin and signs that read “Shut Down Golden Gate Fields.” At large, it was a day of celebration for the regional chapter of Direct Action Everywhere, an animal-welfare group known for its disruptive shows of disobedience that often draw criminal prosecution. Horse racing may never return to Berkeley if voters this November approve a measure banning factory farms. Facilities can earn that designation from federal regulators if they house especially large populations of livestock — in this case, the threshold is 500 horses. Twenty horse deaths were reported at Golden Gate Fields last year, and another seven so far in 2024, including a pair of thoroughbreds this past month named Lilly’s Journey and Sam Spade. Most were either put down by workers after suffering racing-related bodily injuries, or died for other, undisclosed reasons, per data from the California Horse Racing Board. Of 82 horse deaths last year across seven California race tracks, just under a quarter occurred at Golden Gate Fields. The persistent death toll has blemished the track’s proud history as a hub of U.S. horse racing, having featured Triple Crown winner Citation, fabled come-from-behind champion Silky Sullivan and legendary thoroughbred John Henry. A major Canadian conglomerate, the Stronach Group, acquired the property in 2011 and announced its closure last year with plans to refocus its racing investments in Southern California. Separately, the group’s founder, Austrian-Canadian auto parts magnate Frank Stronach, was arrested Friday in Toronto on charges of sexual assault, including rape, that spanned decades. Golden Gate Fields’ closure might be welcomed by animal-welfare activists, but it will eliminate jobs for somewhere around 200 workers, many of them immigrants, who now must wait for a proposed fall horse-racing operation in Pleasanton to take clearer shape. Some of the displaced workers — who groomed and cared after the race track’s horses — have been connected with social services to bridge a path to future work, Berkeleyside reported. “If you look at the conditions they were forced to work in at Golden Gate Fields — these were not great jobs,” said Almira Tanner, an organizer of Sunday’s protest. “I hope, as part of our society’s evolution away from using animals for entertainment, for food, for profit, that we support workers in that transition, too,” she added. “I would love to see the workers be helped to get a job that doesn’t harm them or harm (animals).” Chau, the protester who destroyed his souvenir mug from Golden Gate Fields, said the race track was a regular family trip — a core childhood memory that he recognized only later had played a role in his late father’s gambling problem. “Golden Gate Fields, along with other horse racing tracks (in the country), profit immensely — by the billions — off gambling addictions,” Chau said. “And even worse,” he added, “countless amounts of horses are systematically exploited, separated from their families and eventually killed if they’re found to not profit god-awful places like Golden Gate Fields.” Staff writer Katie Lauer and the Associated Press contributed reporting.

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