07/11/2009 11:10AM

All That Glitters


I will be attending the Hollywood Gold Cup today with a heavy heart, laced with sadness, anger and guilt. Sadness because we have been led to believe that this could be the last Hollywood Gold Cup. Anger because nothing has been done to prevent that from happening. And guilt because, as a journalist, there always will be a nagging itch that something could have been written at some point to have kept Hollywood Park from being leveled and the site rebuilt with office space, shops and high density housing. Journalists are burdened with that kind of ego.

In fact, Hollywood Park has been on the skids as a class act since 1983, when former track boss Marje Everett was handed the first Breeders' Cup and proceeded to remake the place in an image that had nothing to do with the stylish, L.A.-cool sporting venue the track had represented since 1938. Everett and her enablers expanded the racecourse to 1 1/8 miles in time for that first Cup, in November of 1984 (razing a perfectly good horse sales pavilion in the process), and tacked onto the sleek, art-moderne grandstand a grotesque, box-like structure with a vast, cold interior, wrapped in a metallic finish that had the look of a cheap, sharkskin suit. (If this aesthetic process sounds familiar, Frank Stronach pulled a page from the Everett playbook with his reimagining of Gulfstream Park.) With a straight face, Everett then named the ugly new building for her pal, Cary Grant, the most elegant movie star who ever lived, as if wishing could make it so.

By the time Everett was ousted in a palace coup, she had disowned the new building (it had been nicknamed Grant's Tomb for all the use it got). R.D. Hubbard, the new boss, figured out exactly what it was good for and turned it into a casino, then hung onto it as a reliable money-maker when he sold the rest of the racetrack to Churchill Downs, Inc. CDI flipped the property a few years later, selling it to a development group whose intentions, if not transparent, were at least strongly telegraphed. At the time, the Bay Meadows Land Company was already in the process of replacing Bay Meadows racetrack with office space, shops and high density housing.

As a kid growing up in Southern California, Hollywood Park ranked right alongside the L.A. Coliseum and Chavez Ravine as guaranteed entertainment. I watched Native Diver win his first of three Hollywood Gold Cups in 1965, standing with my dad at about the sixteenth pole as this black thing whizzed past, feebly pursued by Hill Rise, my hero, and defending champ Colorado King. When through some miracle I actually began working at the track, I would mourn for anyone who was not in the house the day Bill Shoemaker and Kennedy Road beat Don Piece and Quack by a nose (this was after Shoe was booted from Cougar by owner Mary Jones), or the day Crystal Water, as good a horse ever bred in California, hung it on champion mare Cascapedia and the snarling Caucasus, or that day, 30 years ago, when Affirmed and Laffit Pincay were dogged on the lead every step of the way by Italian champion Sirlad before finally edging away.

Affirmed  Nice try Sirlad. A real nice try.

"I still have people come up to me and talk about that race," said Darrel McHargue, who rode Sirlad. "I was one of the best memories of my career, one of those times when your up against a great horse, and you're on a horse who definitely let him know he was in a race."

McHargue became a steward in California after his retirement from the saddle, which has its own ironic twist. There have been two Gold Cup winners disqualified for interference, and McHargue rode one of them, Caterman, in 1981. But more about Sirlad, who was trained by Charlie Whittingham.

"It was interesting what Charlie said after the race," McHargue continued. "He said, 'We should have gone a little faster the first part of it. Might have softened him up at the end.' I looked at the board. The three-quarter fraction was 1:09 and change." It was 1:09 3/5, to be exact, after a :45 3/5 half, with Affirmed carrying 132 pounds and Sirlad laying on him from the outside. "I was scratching my head," McHargue added. "Faster? But the kind of horses Charlie was used to dealing with, he figured they could do that sort of thing."

Such recollections will help today. At some point, I plan to park my heavy heart and spend a few moments admiring the Native Diver Memorial in the walking ring, along with the statue of Swaps at the clubhouse entrance, and finally the 13 runners in the 70th running of the Hollywood Gold Cup. If they are the last 13, and there is no 71st, here's hoping they do something worth remembering.