Racehorse Junkie'

May/June 1998

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Racehorse Junkie'

Photo: Rod Searcey

The track is exactly 22 minutes from Stanford," says Jack Liebau. He should know. As an undergrad, Liebau used to escape campus by zipping up Highway 101 to Bay Meadows racetrack in San Mateo. Now the track's president, Liebau is more likely to make the drive in the other direction -- to escape work and catch Cardinal basketball games at Maples Pavilion.

Six years ago, Liebau was comfortably practicing business law in Los Angeles when he got a call from the chairman of Bay Meadows asking him to become the track's interim president. He took the job, which evolved into a permanent position. "It was kind of a leap," he says of the move from equity to equine issues.

A self-described "racehorse junkie," Liebau has long owned horses but is relatively new to the business of operating a track. As a boy in Santa Rosa, Calif., he first learned about horses at the Sonoma County Fair, where his father was general manager. He purchased his first thoroughbred in 1965, and over the years has owned as many as 100 horses at any given time at ranches in California and Ireland. (Son Jack Jr., '85, also owns and breeds horses.) Since 1988, he has served as a director of the California Thoroughbred Breeders Association.

Liebau has made some big changes at Bay Meadows. The track, built in 1934, was "really a dinosaur" when he took over. He supervised $7 million in renovations and the construction of four barns in the infield. He made a bid for the upscale crowd by offering valet parking and improving the restaurants and bars. Concerned about racing's aging fan base, he created "Friday's Alive," providing patrons under 30 free admission and $1 beers. Under Liebau, Bay Meadows has even begun broadcasting live satellite feeds of races in Hong Kong, which draws Asian-American clients.

The new approach has paid off. In 1992, the year Liebau took over, the track had a $792,000 operating loss. In 1996, the facility posted profits of $715,000. The amount of money wagered at Bay Meadows also has increased -- from $279 million in 1992 to $492 million in 1997, a spike due in part to the advent of out-of-state betting.

Liebau spends weekdays in San Mateo and weekends in San Marino, near Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife, Charlene, MS '61, the director of undergraduate admissions at Cal Tech. During its 24-week racing season (January to March; September to November), Bay Meadows holds eight to 10 races a day. Liebau attends as many as he can, but is often swept up in the administrative tasks of running a business with 600 employees. "It's all-encompassing," he says. "I work longer hours than I did as a lawyer, but I don't mind because I enjoy the work more."

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