ALBANY, Calif. -- Early Thursday morning, Steve Sherman leaned on a rail with a stopwatch in his hand and watched Rebel At Heart and Koa Cat gallop five-eighths of a mile down the charcoal-colored track at Golden Gate Fields.
Thursday marked the beginning of the fall racing season at the track, on the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay. Sherman, 55, a longtime Bay Area trainer, was running his two thoroughbreds hours before the afternoon's official program of seven races began, trying to get an indication of which races to enter them in next week.
The scene on a sun-drenched morning at the 81-year-old racetrack has been replayed for decades by men and women embedded in the horse racing industry.
But tensions are running especially high as the fall season begins, with trainers, owners and jockeys -- not to mention officials and others who work at the track -- on edge after intense scrutiny over a startling number of deaths of horses at Golden Gate Fields and Santa Anita Park in Southern California in the last year. Some have speculated that the controversy might spell the end of the sport in the United States.
"We're under the microscope," said Sherman, whose father, Art Sherman, won the 2014 Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes with California Chrome, a horse the elder Sherman trained. "You don't want to be the guy who causes horse racing to shut down."
No horses died at Golden Gate Fields on Thursday, in front of a small midweek crowd in the stands.
Trainers and others noted that Opening Day does not hold the allure of previous decades.
Still, Desare Kallingal of Danville wore a white summer dress and red hat for the occasion. She left the track with a big smile after picking winners in all three races that she placed bets.
"I picked by the names of the horse," Kallingal said.
Roz Barclay, an owner and breeder from Auburn, Wash., also was in a celebratory mood after her horse, Northern Rose, won the day's first race.