12/12/2013 5:46PM

Hollywood Park: What a run it had!

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California Thoroughbred Breeders Association
Convenience (left) holds off Typecast to win a 1 1/8-mile, $250,000 match race by a head at Hollywood on June 17, 1972.

Once there was a very special racetrack, a bold, proud, brassy sporting palace of lakes, flowers, and an exotic species known as the goose girl, conjured up by movie moguls, frequented by celebrities, beloved by the masses. It was the place to see or be seen, whether you were a celebrity, a political figure, an industry titan, horse owner, or racing fan.

All of the above, plus a menagerie of Racing Hall of Fame-caliber jockeys, trainers, and horses, converged there every summer like swallows to Capistrano. They came for the purses so liberally distributed throughout the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s . . . to toss unthinkable sums of money at many of the best “ponies” racing had ever produced . . . for the publicity and the photo-ops . . . or simply for an afternoon of basking in the glorious Southern California sun.

The mastermind behind it all was Jack L. Warner, a flamboyant, temperamental dynamo best known for producing major motion pictures, introducing “talkies,” winning Oscars, and making life miserable for Warner Bros.’s stable of film stars.

Ruthlessly powerful and much feared, he was used to being obeyed. Thus, when he struck upon the idea in 1937 of building an expensive, state-of-the-art racetrack even as America staggered numbly out of the Great Depression, numerous business associates and contract employees fell right into line, supporting his scheme with precious capital.

Warner and cohorts – including the likes of Walt Disney, Al Jolson, Mervyn LeRoy, Sam Goldwyn, Irene Dunne, and Joan Blondell – acquired 240 agricultural acres in Inglewood, a sleepy bedroom community just outside of Los Angeles proper. Longtime tenant farmers were summarily evicted, fields of lima beans and barley were plowed under, and at a cost of almost $2.5 million, Hollywood Park came to be.

On Friday, June 10, 1938, Warner’s playground for the rich and famous opened to a thrilling reception. More than 40,000 people turned out on a drizzly afternoon, hoping to see some of Hollywood’s who’s who, along with a bit of quality sport. They would not be disappointed. Claudette Colbert was on hand for the opening. So, too, were Joan Crawford, Bob Hope, and Milton Berle, and at least one Marx brother (Zeppo) had his day at the races.

[Hollywood Park: A top-25 list from 75 years]

The $2,500 Hollywood Premiere was won by W.E. Boeing’s Air Chute, and as the aircraft magnate beamed broadly in the winner’s circle, actress Barbara Stanwyck delivered into his waiting hands a silver trophy.

The next day an even larger crowd looked on as Bing Crosby’s Ligaroti took the $5,000 Inglewood Mile. Weeks later, Seabiscuit packed 133 pounds to victory in the inaugural Hollywood Gold Cup, and the new track was off and running. Warner could not have scripted a better opening meet if he’d tried.

At its inception 75 summers ago, Hollywood Park’s proximity to a budding airstrip three miles to the east on Century Boulevard was not a notable selling point. But the commercial air age was nigh upon us, and within a few years, a horse named Historian would make the first cross-country trip by plane, from Chicago to Mines Field – later Los Angeles International Airport – with the track his final destination.

Blockbuster moments

Hollywood Park thrived . . . in fact, it was a bona fide megahit through much of its first 30 years; great moments passed in an ongoing procession, with grandstands and the clubhouse often packed to the rafters with people eager to witness the parade.

Through the 1950s and ’60s, Hollywood stood firmly at the epicenter of racing, contributing far more than its statistical share in making the Sport of Kings America’s premier spectator sport. Nationwide attendance records were shattered at Inglewood again and again, while handle soared to new and greater heights.

Other than two seasons during World War II (1942 and 1943), when it was turned over to Northrop Aircraft Corp. for military storage, Hollywood Park conducted racing every spring and summer, and in 1981, it added an autumn meet. For years it was the West Coast Mecca for early-developing talent, providing a high-profile launching pad for many a future star.

An eye-popping stakes schedule, long anchored by the Hollywood Gold Cup, Californian, and Vanity Handicap, served up other big races named to honor the track’s motion-picture origins: the Cinema, Premiere, and Spotlight.

[Jay Hovdey: Hollywood Park's rich history can never be torn down]

Momentous occasions and milestones were plentiful. There was Citation, well past his prime in 1951, granting his late owner’s final wish by capturing the Gold Cup and becoming the first equine millionaire; 28 years later, Affirmed would establish himself as the first double-millionaire in that same marquee event (carrying 132 pounds), and in 1983, John Henry was first to sail past the $4 million mark in taking the Hollywood Turf Cup.

There was that magical and unforgettable summer of Swaps, who in 1956 set four world records and tied another at the track of Lakes and Flowers – three of those efforts with 130 pounds up – and that dark day in ’58 when future Hall of Famer Jack Westrope lost his life in a spill during the running of the Hollywood Oaks.

In the mid-’60s, beloved California-bred Native Diver, a coal-black, fire-breathing speedball who never seemed to run out of gas, dazzled crowds with a then-unprecedented three straight Gold Cup tallies. There was Ack Ack, toting a gut-crunching 134 pounds to victory in the 1971 Gold Cup, a year after which Convenience outlasted Typecast in an epic distaff match race for the ages.

Laffit Pincay Jr. sat astride 3,049 of his 9,530 career winners at Hollywood Park, almost one-third of his total. Charlie Whittingham saddled 222 stakes winners there, including 11 editions of the Sunset Handicap, nine Californians, and eight Gold Cups.

It was at Hollywood where the first complete film of a race was shot and spliced together for the stewards’ scrutiny (1941); where exacta wagering was offered for the first time (1971); where the pick six was introduced (1980); and where the Breeders’ Cup was born (1984), the first of three Cups hosted at the Inglewood course.

R.I.P.

Hollywood Park was once a big deal – the biggest of deals. It had the climate, the stars, the money, the panache, and it had the fans. It was the place that even on a weekday drew mobs unimaginable by today’s meager attendance standards, and routinely toppled money and land speed records.

Immortals from yesterday and today – but, alas, not of tomorrow – raced, rode, or strode across the picturesque Hollywood stage, from Assault to Zenyatta, Arcaro to Woolf, Barrera to Van Berg. Cary Grant sat proudly on the board of directors; Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy served as honorary stewards. Here, life and legend crossed paths for seven and a half decades . . . where Landaluce Lane intersected Seabiscuit Way.

But Time proved a pitiless master when it came to Warner’s wonderland of stars. During the 1960s, the neighborhood around Hollywood Park embarked upon a long, slow, degenerative process. At roughly the same time, alternate sporting and gaming options began drawing away younger Southern California customers who had not grown up with horses or racing. The sorrowful writing had no doubt been inscribed upon the wall of racing long before many of us were willing to read it.

[Mary Simon: Hollywood Park won't be forgotten]

To their credit, Hollywood’s various management teams – those of Marje Everett in the ’80s, R.D. Hubbard in the ’90s, Churchill Downs Inc., and then Bay Meadows Land Co. in the new millennium – tried just about everything to stave off the inevitable. They innovated, renovated, added, and subtracted racing days, instituted night racing, introduced ever-more exotic wagering forms, expanded the track, then synthesized it, moved progressively into the cyber age, built a casino, gave away things, held concerts, and threw parties.

But fewer fans showed up with each passing year. By 2012, average attendance had plummeted from 35,000 in Hollywood’s mid-60s heyday to 4,755 for the spring/summer meet and to a mere 3,189 in the autumn. One could blast a howitzer from stem to stern across the once mighty track and hit absolutely no one.

Finally, in 2012 came this terse message from Betfair Hollywood Park President Jack Liebau, throwing in the proverbial towel: “From an economic point of view, the land now simply has a higher and better use, so, unfortunately, racing will not continue here once the autumn meet is completed.”

“A better use?” A “higher” one? Those were not the feelings of racing fans, but the fate of the track was not theirs to decide.

[Hollywood Park: Remembering a grand track]

In 2014, Hollywood Park will be dug up, ripped down, and torn apart. Its lakes likely will be filled, the graceful curve of the turns around which so many of racing’s greats once bounded, eradicated. The gravesites of Native Diver and Landaluce will, hopefully, be tenderly relocated to appropriate environs, lest they end up like the historic Hamburg Place cemetery in Lexington, Ky., where champions of yore slumber in the cold embrace of a Walmart parking lot.

Replacing one of racing’s great shrines will be tough, but developers, who have salivated over this property for years, appear eager to try. Their plan? To erect approximately 3,000 residential units, at least one monstrous hotel, and some 600,000 square feet of retail space – because as we all know, there simply cannot be too many malls and fast-food chain stores.

So now arrives the denouement, to borrow a movie term. If you’re able, come out to Hollywood Park on or before Dec. 22 and say goodbye to an iconic, one-of-a-kind place. Stand on the apron along the homestretch rail and sense the echoing hoofbeats of Seabiscuit . . . Round Table . . . Spectacular Bid. Listen hard, and you just might hear the distinctive intonations of announcer Harry Henson sending them on their way with a gravelly “Aaaaaaand there they go!”

Imagine you’re pushing through a phantom crowd of thousands, the din almost deafening, perhaps brushing elbows with Hedy Lamar in pearls and a big hat, or with a laughing Jimmy Stewart.

Close your eyes, take it in, savor the moment . . . knowing as it slowly fades to black, you’ll never see its like again.

And Cut . . .

 

Some defunct major tracks

Birmingham Turf Club (Ala.)    1987-1992 (1)
Bay Meadows (Calif.)    1934-2008
Hollywood Park (Calif.)    1938-2013
Tanforan (Calif.)    1899-1964
Hialeah Park (Fla.)    1921-2001 (2)
Tropical Park (Fla.)    1931-1972
Sportsman’s Park (Ill.)    1932-2003
Washington Park (Ill.)    1884-1977
Douglas Park (Ky.)      1906-1958
Kentucky Association (Ky.)    1826-1933
Bowie (Md.)      1914-1985 (3)
Havre de Grace (Md.)    1912-1950
Detroit Race Course (Mich.)     1950-1998
Ak-Sar-Ben (Neb.)      1920-1995
Garden State Park (N.J.)    1942-1977; 1985-2001 (4)
Brighton Beach (N.Y.)    1879-1911
Jamaica (N.Y.)    1903-1959
Jerome Park (N.Y.)    1866-1894
Morris Park (N.Y.)    1889-1904
Sheepshead Bay (N.Y.)    1880-1911
Liberty Bell (Pa.)    1963-1986
Narragansett Park (R.I.)    1934-1978
Longacres (Wash.)    1933-1992

(1) Birmingham has dog racing today
(2) Hialeah has Quarter Horse racing today
(3) Bowie is a training center
(4) Garden State burned down in 1977. It was rebuilt and reopened in 1985 and closed in 2001.