12/20/2013 4:21PM

Jay Hovdey: After 75 years, it's closing time at Hollywood Park

Barbara D. Livingston
Hollywood Park, which opened in 1938, will be torn down and the land will be used for commercial development.

In a 2009 article published in Harper’s magazine, the cultural essayist Richard Rodriguez dwelt on the looming end of a local institution, the San Francisco Chronicle.

“When a newspaper dies in America,” Rodriguez wrote, “it is not simply that a commercial enterprise has failed; a sense of place has failed.”

The passage has come vividly to mind in recent weeks as Sunday’s last racing program at Betfair Hollywood Park drew near. As a building, Hollywood Park is nothing special. But as a place where the culture of Thoroughbred racing could be found, since 1938, Hollywood has been home sweet home, and with the loss and leveling of Hollywood Park, racing’s sense of place takes a terrible hit.

For 75 years, Hollywood has been a significant physical presence, standing tall as a proud reminder that even if you don’t play the ponies at least somebody does, because look at all that land and those imposing structures.

Now, there will be one less place for the extended family of Thoroughbred racing to gather, one less place to rub shoulders with like-minded spirits, to complain and cajole, and to try and fathom the mysteries of the game.

Sunday’s final day will be awash with nostalgia, an 11-race Irish wake with rolling pick threes. They say the funeral is a sellout in the Turf Club, where fiddles will play while Rome burns. No one should have a good day.

“Everybody can look around and blame everybody else, but its just a really sad situation,” said Jerry Moss, best known as the man who graced Hollywood Park no less than eight times with his remarkable mare, Zenyatta.

“I was always hoping to get the state of California involved in doing something to protect the land, and protect horse racing’s investment,” Moss said. “It was never forthcoming. The first excuse was the financial crash. Then the governors had too much to do. And third, the Indian interests unfortunately own the state so far as gambling is concerned.”

Moss, who also served on the California Horse Racing Board, acknowledged the growing frustration over corporate racetrack ownership that must answer to the profit demands of shareholders, often to the exclusion of the industry’s welfare. Hollywood fell into such hands in 1999 when it was purchased by Churchill Downs Inc., which sold out to Bay Meadows Land Co. in 2005.

“They’re private corporations, so what are you going to do?” Moss said.

What you can do, said owner-breeder Arnold Zetcher, is answer the challenge to wean racetracks away from corporate pressures.

“Non-profit is the only real answer,” said Zetcher, who has raced such major winners as Richard’s Kid and Gabby’s Golden Gal. “And by that I don’t mean you’re not trying to make money, but that the profits you do make are reinvested in the facility and the industry itself.”

The models are out there and familiar, but sometimes under attack. The Oak Tree Racing Association was the gold standard of non-profit racing operations until its lease at Santa Anita Park was nullified by the Stronach Group that rose from the ashes of Magna Entertainment’s bankruptcy. During the depths of the recession there was talk of California selling the Del Mar Fairgrounds property, which would have left the fate of the not-for-profit Del Mar Thoroughbred Club in limbo. Fortunately, the idea was swatted down.

Still, the idea that Del Mar might have gone to developers was enough for owner-breeder Mike Pegram to have stepped up with a rescue plan to either buy the track with a group of horsemen or operate the track for public ownership. Pegram, currently president of the Thoroughbred Owners of California, pointed out that Hollywood’s fate was sealed long ago.

“When you start talking about getting a return on the $250 million the current owner bought it for, it’s next to impossible,” Pegram said. “It would have taken someone with a lot of courage to bet against a whole lot of things.”

The operators of the Bay Meadows Land Co. always took the position that they were doing the racing industry a favor by keeping Hollywood Park afloat these past eight years. In fact, they were subjecting the sport to a drip torture that encouraged procrastination and severely compromised growth. Each time a proposal came forth that envisioned a future without Hollywood Park, that proposal was shouted down by those who were either convinced Hollywood’s owners were kidding, or terrified that they would pull the rug out overnight if their racing dates were touched.

Optimists see the end of Hollywood Park as an opportunity for an invigorated reimagining of the Southern California racing landscape. No question, there will be a certain amount of chaos, as owners, trainers, and their employees deal with the loss of a major, well-located training facility. California’s reputation as a first-class circuit could take a temporary hit, as skeptics wait and see how the realigned calendar shakes out.

Beyond the dream of an invigorated circuit, inspired by change to survive and thrive, there is only one other sliver of good that could come from the deep wound being inflicted upon the racing industry. If, say, five years from now there are well populated homes, shops, parks, offices, and public promenades where once Hollywood Park stood, then the grand old place will not have died in vain. It’s not much, but it’s something.

Michael Wirtschafter More than 1 year ago
First off, to those affected by Hollywood Park clolsing, I am so very sorry. I experienced the same first hand as our family ran and operated Brandywine Raceway from 1952-1983 and then seeing the second owner drive it into the ground, well, I am so sorry for your lose. It sucks !
Anthony Guererro More than 1 year ago
Today I felt like something terribly had happen to me like a death in the family sort of lost you know like the passing of a love one's kind of lost for decades of history ruin by man's greedy death do us apart type of a lost to say the least lhistorically taken away through the the passing of time what once was is never going to be a sad hororific time for a true race fan another horrible day in racing a true lost of a great gem in racing good bye Hollywood Park good bye my true love oh what tragic day in racing ........
zerosumzen More than 1 year ago
Selling the real estate was always the intent of the Bay Meadows Land Company, after their success selling Bay Meadows for the same purpose. You can pretty much guarantee that these vultures are already eyeing the next race track. And that they'll pay off politicians to get their way. Capitalism had a child, and they called it corporate fascism. Welcome to post-Hollywood America. You ain't seen nothing yet.
Matthew Ellis More than 1 year ago
Thank goodness for M.Pegram and J. Moss fighting for the Industry and Sport. There the only voice of reasoning to REALITY. Great Track and Memories but its over and the show goes on. All the best to CA Racing
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am reading a lot of this "Historical Landmark" stuff on here - and as much as I would love to have seen that done as well - it requires that the property/buildings etc to be over a 100 years old - HP falls short of that by 25 years unfortunately.
Hail No More than 1 year ago
I am not sure about that, Texas School Book Depository has been HL for quite awhile, now...
Hail No More than 1 year ago
PS, you might be correct, as the TSBD was originally opened in 1901, I can't find *when* it was declared HL. Blessings and Happy Holidays to One and All, Great and Small, each and every one of Us..
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
As we spend 2 Billion a day on Americas War machine, For One Tenth that we are seeing a great Race Track Die. Where we could enjoy the Great Horses that give everything they have to Run for us we can't muster up this little to keep the best stables in Los Angeles open for them. But its just business and the profit is more important than the Sport. It's a sad day for me as I watch an end to a great gathing place in a tribute to the Horse. There will never be another greater place for me in Los Angeles than watching Racing at Hollywood Park.
D More than 1 year ago
Harry Ryan you are a stupid individual
Marie Jost More than 1 year ago
As a lover of Monmouth Park and it's history, i would hope the NJ TBOA will take notice of what has happened to Hollywood Park and see to it that Monmouth will not fail and succumb to a similiar demise.
saratogajunkie More than 1 year ago
Photo finish...........
walesfoodmusic More than 1 year ago
there will be dozens more racetrack closures in the next decade,because they operate on obsolete business models