Remembering Bay Meadows Race Track

I wrote this story in 2000.

By June Morrall

(Photo by June Morrall.)

It was strangely silent during the off-season at Bay Meadows in the early years, the 1930’s, the ’40s,but the racetrack remained haunted with the rousing sounds of the “Sport of Kings.”

The memories saturated the air: “Here comes ‘Seabiscuit,’ the rags-to-riches people’s horse, the leading Thoroughbred all-time money winner, ridden by ‘Red’ Pollard, a one-eyed boxer turned jockey, thundering toward the finish line. In the quiet gloom, one could imagine the undulating deafening roar of the crowd from the grandstands.

The paddock was empty. The professional jockeys, remarkable athletes in miniature, wearing their colorful silk shirts, the trainers, an unpredictable lot, and their nervous equine wards, were no where to be seen. This was off-season, and they were elsewhere.

To the half-dozen kids in South San Mateo’s rural neighborhood in the 1940s, it was as if there wasn’t a soul around during off-season.

“And so Bay Meadows became our castle, our fort,” recalls Dorene Miller Pecoraro, who grew up near the racetrack founded by William (Bill) Patrick Kyne in 1934.

Describing herself as “tomboy,” Pecoraro and her friends used the racetrack as their fantasy playground.

“We pretended to hear the announcer say, ‘And they’re off’ as we dashed out of the starting gate.” When they got tired of chasing each other, the kids drifted toward the infield to watch the graceful swans skimming the ponds.

Surrounding the track were a few homes but many more flower nurseries.

“We were the only kids in the area, and we lived out in the country,” says Pecoraro, a longtime El Granada resident. “South San Mateo was definitely rural. People raised chickens in the background.”

Bay Meadows was not only a backdrop, the racetrack was an important part of Dorene Pecoraro’s eary childhood, a time fondly remembered. One of her neighbors was horse trainer Hack Ross, and her best friend’s father raced trotters and pacers. While walking through the stable area, she once encountered Johnny Longden, the legendary “millionaire jockey,” who in a later race at Bay Meadows guided home his 3000th winner, becoming the first rider in American turf history to claim that milestone.

But there was nothing rural or bucolic about Bill Kyne. His drive and ambition dominated Bay Meadows, and, he, too, entered Dorene’s life. She remembers that he was a busy man who had a nationally known racetrack to operate, but still made time for the neighbors and their kids.

While she was attending Baywood School, her mother wrote a letter to Kyne, voicing concern about the children’s safety when stepping off the yellow school bus, and crossing the street at a corner near the racetrack.

In response to the missive, “Mr. Kyne came to our house,” recalls Pecoraro. “He told my mother, ‘Don’t worry. I’ll take care of it.’ And he did. One of his own men stood guard at the corner to make sure the children were safe.”

In 1954, the Manor Theater marquee’s lights announced the showing of the film, “Money From Home,” starring Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, the era’s sensational comedy team.

“It was a horse racing movie,” says Pecoraro, who was a teenager working at the local movie house. “I came up with the idea of doing a promotion, dressing up in authentic jockey shirts and caps.”

Dorene knew whom she could count on for help. “I called Bay Meadows and Mr. Kyne answered the phone himself,” she remembers. When ticket holders arrived for the Martin and Lewis show, young employees wearing jockey outfits greeted them.

Bay Meadows was a magnet for Hollywood’s biggest stars, and they often could be seen window shopping in downtown San Mateo.

Betty Grable was my father’s cousin,” says Pecoraro, referring to the blonde bombshell pin-up girl with the million-dollar legs. Her marriage to Harry James, bandleader and trumpeter supreme, was one of show business’s biggest stories. A giant in the “Big Band” era, Harry James was an ardent racing fan, who owned Thoroughbreds.

“They stayed at the Ben Franklin Hotel in San Mateo and we were so excited when they came to visit us at home,” says Dorene.

Bill Kyne had his own fascinating connection to the world of motion pictures, but that came only after a series of varied occupations and escapades.

Born in 1887, William K. Kyne was a San Francisco Irish kid, one of seven children, who early on believed his calling was to the priesthood. That noble goal was derailed when his dock foreman father was killed in a tragic waterfront accident. Saddled with helping support his big-hearted mother and his siblings, Kyne sold newspapers.

It may have been a defining moment when, delivering papers to the Emeryville racetrack, young Kyne was exposed to the Thoroughbreds, the colorful jockeys and cheering crowds. But more likely it was the betting action with winners cashing in tickets that changed him forever. Bill Kyne became convinced that his future lay in horse racing.

The route to his final destination was circuitous. He gained valuable experience in office jobs and promoting boxing matches. When boxing and racing were banned in California in 1910, what was he to do?

He tried a new venture, becoming the manager of “Bronco” Billy Anderson, the first cowboy star of silent films. Essanay, a pioneer film company, located in the East Bay, produced Bronco Billy’s movies. The studio was an early rival to Hollywood. Had Kyne remained with Bronco Billy he might have become a movie mogul, but the attraction of horse racing drew him back to the “Sport of Kings.”

Racing was illegal in California, but not in Butte, Montana. Twenty-five-year-old Kyne headed east to the mining town, setting up business as the youngest bookmaker in the county.

A major tool in the success of a bookie is the ability to “handicap” races, rating each horse by past performance and bloodlines. Kyne learned quickly, and his handicapping skills would pay big dividends through the years. What he learned in Butte, and at other racetracks later on, provided the gateway to his ultimate dream. Bill Kyne was ready for the big time.

“By the early 1930s Kyne led the campaign to legalize parimutuel betting in California, creating a state-controlled wagering system that included an automatic monetary return to the track and the state on every bet,” says Mitch Postel, Executive Director of the San Mateo County History Museum. “It also established a California Horse Racing Board to oversee the track’s activities.”

The parimutuel machine changed the status of the bookie forever. No longer required at the racetrack, the bookie’s activities were now off-track and illegal.

The timing seemed right. Kyne scoured the state for a site for his own track, finally settling on a former meadow and dairy farm near the bay in San Mateo, then in use as the Curtiss-Wright flying field. He christened it “Bay Meadows.”

“We are about to stage the greatest revival of sports in history here in San Mateo, through the efforts of William P. Kyne,” said State Senator William H. Hornblower, who helped lead the successful lesislative fight for Kyne’s racing bill.

More than 30,000 well-dressed spectators, the men and women wearing hats, streamed into Bay Meadows for the eight races on opening day, Saturday, November 3, 1934. Character actor Wallace Beery, who won his fame at Essanay Films, assisted Kyne’s wife, Dorothy, in the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Big box-office star, Clark Gable, owner of “Beverly Hills,” a two-year-old filly, arrived from Southern California aboard a special express train that stopped steps away from the track’s entrance.

Some 18 women racing-stable owners were on hand, including Mrs. Ethan Mars, widow of the Chicago candy manufacturer, Mrs. W.P Roth and Mrs. Alma Spreckles Rosekrans.

Peter B. Kyne, famous local author and president of the California Jockey Club, sat prominently among the officials in the judge’s stand. Bill Kyne’s relative remembered horse racing at an earlier time in California. Raised in Moss Beach, Peter Kyne recalled grooming teams for his father, and of his first horse race at Half Moon Bay, which he sheepishly admitted losing.

The grandstands were commodious, the clubhouse swanky, and there was praise for Lake Lydon, built within the circle of the track. Horse owners, trainers and sportsmen pronounced the turf “lightening fast.”

Once seated, all eyes of the patrons focussed on the infield, where a giant electronic board, with flashing lights captured attention. This was the debut of the $250,000 totalizer machine, the first of its kind on the West Coast. The totalizer displayed a number representing each horse in the current race, the amount of dollars bet on each, the changing odds, and finally, when the race was over, the payoffs for win, place and show.

Opening day was a grand success, but the greatest accolades were reserved for Bill Kyne, as friends and admirers competed to shake his hand and pat him on the shoulder.

“Thank you, boy,” said Kyne modestly. “This is just the start. We’re going to make Bay Meadows even better.”

And the best was yet to come. The “Bay Meadows Handicap” became the feature of every meeting, producing some of the finest races ever witnessed on Northern California turf. “Seabiscuit,” a bent-legged horse, claimed for $8,000 by C.S. Howard, began his climb to fame and fortune at the San Mateo course. Most memorable was the colt’s victory in the 1937 and 1938 Bay Meadows’ Handicaps.

Under Bill Kyne’s leadership, Bay Meadows became a leading force not only in California, but in the national racing scene as well,” says Mitch Postel.

Triple Crown winner “Citation” raced at Bay Meadows, as did Kentucky Derby winners “Determine” and “Majestic Prince,” “Noor,” “Round Table,” and “Native Diver,” a veritable who’s who of Thoroughbred champions.

There were many “firsts” and innovations presented at the San Mateo track. In addition to introducing the first Quarter Horse and night racing, Bay Meadows was the first track in California to use the totalizator, photo-finish camera and electric starting gate. In 1945, Kyne earned a personal first by flying “El Lobo” in an old Conestoga Flying cargo plane from Los Angeles to the Bay Medows parking lot. El Lobo ran in the Inaugural Handicap and won. Nothing like that had been done before.

During WWII, in a surprising decision, Kyne received official permission to keep the track open with many restrictions. More than 90 percent of all profits went to the war effort. Kyne raised nearly $4 million, and provided a real boost for the morale of the Bay Area workforce totally committed to winning the war.

William P. Kyne passed away in 1956 at age 69. His vision and determination were so indelibly imprinted upon the operation of Bay Meadows that it continued as a smooth operation long after his death.

Mae De Vol, employed for over 50 years at Bay Meadows, and Bill Kyne’s former secretary, is a human memory bank of the racetrack’s history and lore.

De Vol has witnessed many changes at Bay Meadows. “Way back when,” she recalls, “we didn’t have machines, all the betting was done in person at the window. The horses used to be exercised by grooms, now they have mechanical walkers. Everybody used to dress up, and the men and women wore hats. It got so casual we had to institute a dress code.”

But what she remembers most is Bill Kyne’s generosity. In more difficult times, she says, “A hobo passing through never left hungry.”

Through the years, Bay Meadows was mostly a profitable operation, but the changes going on all around it have been startling.

“The Peninsula is part of the most sought after real estate market in the nation for residential communities, and while sad historically, it is inevitable that the horse track has to go,” says Mitch Postel of the San Mateo County History Museum. Recently it was announced that Bay Meadows would close operations in 2002.


Six more years have passed since I wrote this article, and on May 11, 2008, “Mother’s Day,” Bay Meadows will close its doors. This time the “off season” is forever.