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Relays running to Sacramento

Carl Lewis celebrates a win in the 200 meters in 1987.
Carl Lewis celebrates a win in the 200 meters in 1987. Modesto Bee

The California Invitational Relays, the track and field meet that hoisted Modesto onto an international stage for nearly 70 years, has run its final race.

The end came Thursday at the Relays office as glum-faced officials delivered the news: The event tabbed by admirers as "The Biggest Little Track Meet In the World," the competition that produced a remarkable 31 world records since its beginning in 1942, will move to Sacramento in 2009.

Save Mart Supermarkets, the Modesto-based grocery giant that has bankrolled the meet for 10 years, will remain the sponsor. Gregg Miller will continue as meet director while the Sacramento Sports Commission, which marketed two U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials and four NCAA Championships this decade, will assume similar duties.

The 68th Relays will be held May 9 at California State University, Sacramento's Hornet Stadium. But for Modesto, there will be no more May magic. Only the Fourth of July parade enjoyed a longer tenure among community events.

Miller cited declining attendance and increased apathy for the switch, which was approved this week by officials of the Relays, Save Mart and Sacramento. This year, despite perfect weather and heightened interest during an Olympic year, the Relays drew only 2,710, the worst turnout during the Save Mart era.

"We pulled the rabbits out of every conceivable hat and still saw a drop-off," Miller said. "It breaks my heart to pull the Relays from its home, but this was the only way to keep it alive. The meet would either die or it would move to Sacramento. We presented the plan to Bob (Piccinini, Save Mart chief executive officer) to save this thing."

Save Mart revived event

Save Mart jumped on board and rescued the Relays from almost certain collapse in 1998. The event did die for four days in March 1994 after the pullout of Tri Valley Growers, which had been the title sponsor since 1983.

Tom Moore, the meet director from 1945 until his death on the eve of the 2002 Relays, refused to relegate it to history. Once Tri Valley dropped out, Moore and officials kept the meet alive on a shoestring budget until 1998, when Save Mart joined the team.

"This is still Tom's meet. I'm not going to let it die," Miller said. "It's a promise I made to Tom."

The Relays enjoyed mild success under Save Mart as it evolved into a combination track meet and community fair. Crowds reached 5,000 as barbecue contests, concerts and kids' bounce houses overflowed from Modesto Junior College Stadium onto Tully Road.

Piccinini, however, envisioned a return to the capacity crowds the Relays enjoyed during the 1950s and '60s, the zenith of track and field's popularity in the United States

"We got on board because it was a Modesto event. We thought we were doing a benefit for the community," Piccinini said. "But after 10 years, the community, in essence, said, 'We don't give a darn.' We kept thinking it would get better, so we tried to put a good spin on it. But after a while, it was like we just ran out of ammo."

Sacramento also weighed an offer from the Visa Championship Series event, which drew poorly in Carson, south of Los Angeles, the week after the Relays.

"The legacy of Tom Moore, the valley connection and the fact we knew Gregg Miller decided it for us," said John McCasey, executive director of the Sacramento Sports Commission. "We're going to accept this very humbly. The Relays was part of the fabric of the community, and there are no guarantees that we'll be the fix. I do think it's a great opportunity and I'm happy Modesto people are still with us."

Bee sports columnist Ron Agostini can be reached at ragostini@modbee.com or 578-2300.

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