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A Day at Golden Gate Fields

Living in Berkeley, I have always seen the horse racing track by the freeway - specifically west of I-80 by Berkeley (Gillman exit).  I never knew the name of the place or had even seen the place when it was live.  It was always dark and empty when I would drive by.  I never saw horses running on the racetrack nor people in the stands.  I figured the place was closed.  Furthermore, I had hardly ever heard of anyone talk of horse racing.  The sport seemed like a once a year sport - specifically when the Kentucky Derby was raced.  Other than that, horse racing seemed sort of boring and something for the wealthy, and very stuffy uppercrust.  Something that TwistNHook might like, but definitely not something for me (for those of you that do know me you would probably agree). 

However, a culinary school friend of mine wanted to go because she liked horses.  So upon her suggestion I decided to go.  That of course, meant googling what the heck that place was called and finding out that they weren't closed but were very much open but by coincidence I had never driven by on a live day. 

That horse racing track west of I-80 in Berkeley is called Golden Gate Fields. 


Golden gate Fields.  I didn't bring my real camera so here's a picture from my phone.  That green structure on the grass is the scoreboard, well, I'm sure there's a real technical horse racing name for it but it lists the odds for the horses and the number of bets on the horses. The green tent in the foreground is where the jockeys are weighed.  The red and white pole on the far right is the finish line.

I went there today (Sunday, January 18, 2009) and surprisingly had a very good time.

I was going to go on Saturday so I could watch the NFL AFC and NFC championship games on Sunday but my friend suggested going on Sundays because it was $1 day.  Apparently, every Sunday is $1 day.  Thus, parking, admission, the program, beer, soda, and hotdogs were each $1 today.  A mere $4 got our car parked, both of us in the gate, and a program.  Lunch was another mere $3 (two hotdogs and a soda).  A fun day at Golden Gate Fields?  Costly should you resist the urge to bet.

So perhaps the bigger surprise was finding out that I could bet on horses.  I mean, I sort of knew you could but never really thought that Golden Gate Fields (hereinafter "GGF") would be a place to come to lose your money instead of Vegas or Reno. 

To bet, all you have to do is either get in line and place bets via speaking to a human teller face to face, or get a money voucher by going to a "voucher" machine.  At the voucher machine you merely put in your life savings, and push the "print" button and the machine spit out a little square piece of paper (much like a receipt) with all your money on it.  Don't lose it! 

At first, my friend and I didn't know what to do so we got in line to place bets face to face with the human tellers.  The lines were about 5 people deep early in the day at the time of the first race at 12:45 pm, thus it didn't take to long to place bets.  But as the day went on, GGF got busier and busier and the lines were soon 20-25 people deep so my friend and I decided to learn how to use the electronic machines. 

At GGF there are huge long stands of electronic betting machines.  I guess a lot of novices go to GGF to have a casual day of fun so they merely use the human tellers to bet and ignore the complicated looking machines.  But being that the human teller line was long, we decided that struggling for 5 minutes figuring out how to use the machines was well worth it.  It was a lot simpler than it looked.  You merely put in your voucher, it reads how much much your life savings is (in my case $10) and you can decide how to bet. 


The GGF grandstands.  The lower level has TVs, heaters, and benches inside (behind the glass), the upper area has boxes, more benches, and standing area.

When you bet, you're essentially (so it was explained to me in the program) betting against other people and not the house.  Thus, the odds fluctuate based on the betting.  Between each race, the scoreboard constantly updates every 30 seconds or so with the updated bet count (how many "win" bets placed on horse #1 for example, and the updated odds for payout).  The minimum bet is only $2.  Rock on!  Even poor people can gamble!  I like this place!

You can choose a variety of complex bets like trifecta or parlay and other weird funny named bets or you can do the easy beginner bets like, "win," "place," or "show."  A win bet is easy, if you're horse finishes in first place, you win.  A place bet means that your horse has to finish first or second.  And a show bet means your horse has to finish first, second, or third.  The win bet pays more than a place bet which pays more than a show bet.  Furthermore, each horse has different odds and the favored horses payout less than the longshots.  A win bet on a longshot at like 40:1 odds could easily get one addicted...

All the races are set out about 25 minutes apart.  It turns out that the races are timed perfectly.  That 25 minutes is just the right amount of time to talk to your friends about the previous race, plan your bet for the next race, grab another $1 beer and hotdog, and eat it.  Today there were 9 races starting at 12:45 pm.  Some races are short sprint races of like 3/4 of a mile or something, and others are longer like 1 and 1/16th mile.  

I suck at most things in life, and thus I sucked at betting.  I was 0/5 on my bets and lost my $10 life savings.  :'(

There was a little excitement outside of the actual races.  Prior to one of the races, during warmups, one of the horses got spooked and threw off his/her jockey and the jockey was injured. 


Injured jockey on the ground.

You can barely see people attending to the injured jockey in the picture above.  The injured jockey is laying on the ground by the guy in white who is kneeling on the track (above the kid in the foreground with the gold shirt).  The jockey just laid on the ground after being thrown off.  He didn't move one bit.  It was sort of a serious moment because he didn't move at all.  Furthermore, some of the other horses in the area were getting spooked too for some reason - even the escort horses (the normal horses which walk the racing horses around the track) were getting spooked by something.  There was concern that other horses might get spooked so the jockeys all quickly dismounted their horses, and the horses were led away so they didn't trample the injured jockey.  The injured jockey was put into an ambulance.  The horse which threw off the jockey was "scratched" from the race (did not race). 

My friend and I stayed through race 7 (of 9).  Race 7 was the final race we were going to see and thus we decided to head down to the lower level by the race track to see the horses up close.


During pre-race warmups, each race horse gets an escort horse.  I guess the escort horses help control and keep the racing horses calm. 

Being the last race of the day for my friend and I, we decided to put what was left of our money (my friend and I pooled more money together to bet) on two last bets.  With my portion of the money I placed a $3 "show" bet on a horse named Silver Dust.  Silver Dust wasn't favored.  In fact, she was a 20:1 odds at the opening odds.  However, she was horse #2 - meaning she was in gate #2 - meaning the second inner-most gate.  I guess you could say she was a longshot.  Some other horses were like 5:1 favorites, and there was another horse that was like a 30:1 longshot. 


The grounds crew sets up the starting gate for Race 7, which was 1 mile race.  The numbers above the gates designate the gate numbers.  It's just coincidence that it's only numbered to seven and this was Race 7.  There were actually nine horses in this race. After the horses burst out of the starting gates, the gates are quickly driven off the field.

The cool thing about GGF is that there is a standing area right next to the final stretch area where you can easily see the horses warm up and finish races only a mere 25 yards away.  Furthermore, there is a lot of great seating just by the finish line where you can easily see the finishes.  Seating (for today at least) was first come first serve.  We had no problems finding seats by the finish line for optimal viewing. 


Here the horses are preparing to go into the starting gates.  The big tractor pulls the starting gates.  The ambulance follows the horses (way behind and to the exterior of the track) in case there are accidents.

And they're off!  The start is really quiet - meaning it's not like they announce it over the speaker or there is a gun going off.  One moment the grounds crew and the horses are being put into the gates, than only a few seconds later the gates suddenly open without notice, gunshot, or bell.  If you're not paying attention for that 3 seconds you could easily miss the horses coming out of the gates. 

And if you go to the horses races, I suggest bringing binoculars.  While there is a big screen jumbotron at GGF, it's hard to see with the setting sun glare and furthermore, they only show the lead horse and not the rest.  So if you want to see the rest of the horses when they're on the other side of the track I suggest bringing binoculars although it seemed like even the hardcore horse racing fans there didn't bring binos. 

As the horses came around the final turn towards the finish I got rather excited.  No, it wasn't because Longshore threw the most beautiful pass into the crowd to avoid a sack, but because my horse, Silver Dust, with the white #2 numbering fabric on her flank was putting on the afterburners down the home stretch.  Earlier in the race she had gotten on the inside rail but got stuck in some traffic.  On the final turn she burst out wide into the open and was closing fast on the lead horse who was slowly giving up the lead.

As the horses pass you there is that stereotypical thundering of hooves.  Everyone is cheering.  I was screaming out "GO NUMBER TWOOOOOOOOO" like I was cheerleading for somebody who was constipated.  Other people were yelling "go go go go go GO GO GOOO GO go go" like they were having uncontrollable orgasmic hiccups.  A few were groaning already in disappointment even before the horses crossed the finish line. 

It was a photo finish!  It was close.  At the time I didn't think Silver Dust won, but I was pretty sure she came in second.  It was like the happiest moment of my life because I knew I had won some money and wouldn't have to resort to becoming a male gigolo.  I forgot to look at what the final odds were prior to the race (and I can't remember now) but I think her finals odds for winning were like 9:1.  That would be a decent payout for a $3 show bet.  

It was sort of quiet immediately after the race as the officials checked the photo finish to confirm the results.  After a minute, the results flashed up on the scoreboard...


Wooo!!!  HydroTech wins some of his money back!  I won $17.10 on my $3 show bet.  That sure beats a 1:1 win to bet ratio on Blackjack in Vegas.  Just imagine if I had put a "place" bet on Silver Dust!  I think the payout for a $3 place bet would have been like $30.  (Note: if you do the math, the payout on my bet was merely 5.7 to 1 because a portion of the winnings is taken out to pay for fees and costs, etc.)


Silver Dust on the left!     HydroTech <3 Silver Dust. 

So all in all, it was a fun day and pretty darn cheap.  I think I spent $5 on food and drinks, $1 for parking, $1 for a program, $20 for betting which can get you through the day with some luck. So merely going to GGF will cost you a lowly $7 to $8.  If you choose to bet, well, then it costs a little more unless you win.

It was a lot more fun than it seems - I have a tendency to take the excitement out of things when I write.  It's sort of amazing how exciting those final 10 seconds of the horses coming down the home stretch can be. 

I highly suggest making it out to GGF some day if you haven't been.  It's definitely a lot of fun if you get some friends together to do some casual betting.  It's even a fun family atmosphere for those of you with kids.  There were a lot of families and young children there.  As for the 20 year-old crowd, I saw a lot of college kids there (presumably from Cal) just hanging out, doing some betting and enjoying lots of $1 beer.  While I don't condone under age drinking, if you're buying beer don't be surprised if they don't card you.  I was never carded when I bought beer and I definitely look like I'm in highschool.  

I saw a TON of people wearing Cal stuff today.  Every where I looked, old and young.  Cal hats.  Cal sweatshirts.  Cal shirts.  I even saw former Cal tight end Julian Arthur there and another culinary school classmate of mine!  What a coincidence!

I'm definitely hooked and am going to go back on a $1 Sunday.

I'm not addicted.  I swear.