07/16/2003 12:00AM

Hollywood's star quality has faded


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - The management team of Hollywood Park has proven they know how to throw a pretty good party. They pulled out all the stops for the American Oaks on July 5 and drew a crowd of about 16,000. They set the stage for Laffit Pincay's tasteful - and memorable - farewell last Sunday, and were rewarded with attendance that topped 20,000 for only the second time at this meet.

These days, such numbers pass for encouraging. Okay, fine. Live attendance has been systematically dispersed to offtrack simulcast sites, and more recently to the living room, where betting has become a snap, a click, or a phone call.

Racing has become conditioned to the fact that only the heavily promoted events have a chance to draw significant numbers at the gate. Credit goes to those racetrack operators who recognize this fact and try hard to offer those special programs.

But then what? What happens on those rare days when racing pokes its head above ground? Is the house in good shape, ready to cast racing in the best possible light?

They are at Arlington Park, a meticulously groomed facility that brims with pride and good care. They are at massive old Belmont Park, built to age with grace. And they are at such tidy, regional tracks as Fair Grounds, Emerald Downs, and Lone Star Park, where the imprint of a hands-on management philosophy is apparent in every corner.

Then there is Hollywood Park, once the jewel in the crown of California racing, where movie stars roamed unsupervised, and where Los Angeles sports fans once spent their early summer afternoons.

The Hollywood Park of the 1960's is still recalled as a place of spit and polish, from the scrubbed grandstand and clubhouse to the harrowed roads of the stable area. The Hollywood of the early 1990's brought a brief renaissance, when new owner R.D. Hubbard plowed millions into redecoration and renovation of a facility gone aesthetically haywire.

Today, sorry to say, a walk around the grandstand on any given afternoon is an invitation for concern, especially in an age when glamorous new ballparks and arenas have become more exciting than the games they host.

Ancient gum dots, gone black with grime, decorate the pavement in common areas. Inside the stands, cigarette burns form their own spread of dark brown splatter in wide patches of linoleum. Metal railings nearly everywhere are badly in need of paint.

The open-air saddling paddock, focal point of the grandstand entrance, is rimmed by ornamental olive trees that have gone without trimming for far too long - at least too long to still be called ornamental. As fans arrive, they see the paddock paths unharrowed, flecked with weeds and scattered droppings from morning schoolers, and untended flower beds hiding ungathered pieces of yesterday's trash.

The grandstand wall looming over the paddock is home to the large, square panels adorned with the silks patterns of noted Thoroughbred owners through the ages, one of Hollywood's signature features. But where once they sparkled in the sun - the hot pink of Forked Lightning Ranch, the royal blue of J.J. Elmore - they are now faded, cracked, and warped, victims of neglect.

Season box-holders complain of dirt on their chairs and borrow rags and napkins from food counters. The boxes themselves need paint at the very least, and certainly televisions to join the 21st century, but at least they have it better than the ground-floor clubhouse boxes, where midway through the day ants can be found feasting on uncollected food.

Of course, this could be just nit-picking. After all, Hollywood Park is a 53-year-old facility, and structures built in 1950 were not exactly meant to last. Rick Baedeker, president of Hollywood, must fight a daily battle to maintain reasonably acceptable standards of cleanliness in a stadium that needs a complete makeover. Baedeker said he is spending at least 50 percent more on maintenance now than he did three years ago.

"If we had built this thing last year, and had the same level of care and maintenance we do now, the place would look wonderful," Baedeker said. "But the old girl is a little rickety at this point. It takes a lot to prop her up, and a little more lipstick than it used to. Right now, day to day is the best I can do and stay mentally healthy."

Hollywood Park, together with its valuable parimutuel signal, is owned by Churchill Downs Inc. The Kentucky-based company is in a high-profile renovation of its mother ship - Churchill Downs - leaving a perception that everything in the CDI building budget right now is going toward the Louisville project.

"That may be the perception, but I don't believe it's true," Baedeker said. "They're not just Louisville-focused. And I have not been bashful about making them aware of the things we need at Hollywood. They know the challenges we've got.

"In fact," Baedeker added, "we have just received an invitation to get things improved here over the next three years, which means a three-year commitment to spend some serious dough. So I am encouraged."

Perhaps there is hope after all.