12/12/2013 4:41PM

Jay Hovdey: Hollywood Park’s rich history can never be torn down


It was a big deal at the time, my first trip to Hollywood Park, but not so much because of where I was going with my dad but who we were going to see that summer afternoon.

We were going to see Hill Rise, my Thoroughbred hero, who had seduced my fertile teenage imagination with his towering physique and commanding presence – and that was just on TV. I had survived his bittersweet spring of 1964, when Hill Rise hurtled through the Santa Anita meet unscathed before Northern Dancer ruined his/my day in the Kentucky Derby.

Now I was ready to behold the big guy for the first time in the flesh as Hill Rise tried to be the first horse since Noor in 1950 to win the Santa Anita Handicap and the Hollywood Gold Cup in the same year. I knew enough to know that a horse doesn’t get any better than that.

Details of the day are sketchy. I was 14, so give me a break. It turns out that the official crowd count of 58,971 on that July 17, 1965, ended up the largest ever for a Hollywood Gold Cup, but to me, big crowds were no big deal.

By then, I’d been to a World Series at Dodger Stadium (Oct. 2, 1963, Game 3, the house filled to its 55,912 capacity), a USC-Notre Dame game at the Los Angeles Coliseum (Nov. 28, 1964, attendance: 83,840), and the 1965 Rose Parade on a chilly New Year’s Day morning with about a million other souls lining Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena. Arnold Palmer was grand marshal.

We watched the Gold Cup from the apron, standing at about the sixteenth pole, with Harry Henson’s gravelly call barely audible above the 58,970 fans screaming around me. Whoosh went this black thing by us, topped with blue polka dots on white, followed a couple of beats later by the rest of the field, including Hill Rise. Native Diver won by five. My horse finished third.

[Hollywood Park: What a run it had!]

The Hollywood Park of 1965 has been gone for quite some time. Horses saddled back then in paddock stalls by the track. There was no turf course, the racetrack was only a mile around, and it would be years before the monstrous casino building would be tacked on to the west.

Also, those were Canadian geese adorning the infield, instead of the current tribe of forlorn flamingos.

I’ll always regret that I missed the original Hollywood Park, which opened in 1938 and rivaled crosstown Santa Anita with its high-end art-deco touches of stylish curves, polished woods, plush alcoves, and reflecting pools. It was all ritzy Hollywood for a Hollywood crowd, and it burned like an oiled torch one night in May 1949.

It was rebuilt with some of the original style and then maintained as neat as a pin through the 1950s and ’60s while considered nothing less than one of California’s finest sporting venues.

Californians of a certain age (mine) commenced their affair with Hollywood Park during those heady years when Native Diver won three straight Hollywood Gold Cups. His reign as the West’s most popular Thoroughbred provided some consolation for coming along after the eras of Seabiscuit, Noor, Citation, and Swaps, when the bar was set as high as a horse can reach.

[Hollywood Park: Remembering a grand track]

Within the decade, I went from rabid grandstand fan to a dream job as a third-rung racetrack publicity flak, then from there to the ranks of the ink-stained wretches who lived out their racing fantasies on the printed page.

The oldest Hollywood Park memories are scattered and disorganized, snapshots tossed in a shoebox.

Here’s one of me (lord, that hair) working for Bob Benoit and Nat Wess in the publicity department when I would every so often go for a jog on the flat, firm Bermuda grass turf course and imagine myself treading in the hoofprints of Pretense, Pink Pigeon, Fort Marcy, and Fiddle Isle.

Here’s another of my Camaro pulling up lame no fewer than twice in neighborhoods surrounding Hollywood Park, leaving me at the mercy of what were supposed to be roaming bands of vicious youths. Instead, I got lifts from locals, one of them with his own tow truck.

Here’s the day I stopped by John Henry’s stall in one of the older wooden barns not long after he returned from winning the Sword Dancer in New York. I dared to give him a playful hug, but only because he was still feeling the quieting effects of a travel-size dose of acepromazine. Ron McAnally looked on and grinned.

“Be careful,” he said. “It’ll wear off in about five minutes, and then you’re in trouble.”

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

And in this one, I’m standing alongside some bald dude peering through a viewing window at the Hollywood Park equine hospital as Dr. Greg Ferraro removed two bone chips from the right knee of Sunday Silence. It was just 13 days after the black colt had beaten Easy Goer in their version of Ali-Frazier at the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Charlie Whittingham, the bald dude who trained and owned a piece of Sunday Silence, wondered how the other guy felt.

Will I miss Hollywood Park? Of course I will, especially when I think of those moments shared there with trainers like Willard Proctor, Thad Ackel, Ian Jory, Lewis Cenicola, and Joe Manzi. I will miss the sprawling backstretch and the casual access to Zenyatta, Affirmed, Lava Man, Best Pal, Bayakoa, Ancient Title, Crystal Water, Flawlessly, and Quack.

If you were lucky enough to stand next to one of them, especially in the morning when they trained, their presence was so overwhelming, their spirit so deep, that you literally forgot where you were. It was Hollywood Park.

Anyway, I already miss standing with assistant trainer Humberto Ascanio on the clubhouse porch overlooking the winner’s circle as one of his Bobby Frankel runners held forth. I will miss hanging with Neil Drysdale or Dick Mandella at the patio rail of the stable cafeteria, decoding their tics and twitches as their horses worked in front of us.

I will miss the long walk down the bridle path around the home turn to meet Cigar or Sandpit or Azeri coming over from the barns to the paddock. I will miss Grace in the press-box kitchen, Ruben in the Turf Club, and Rudy at the fountain gate.

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

In the end, it was the people and the horses who made Hollywood Park special, not the other way around. At the peak of its success, Hollywood Park provided a wonderful stage for some of the finest racing that California – and the nation – could ever expect. Now the stage comes down, but the show goes on because no matter how hard you swing it, you can’t touch a memory with a wrecking ball.