12/23/2013 11:08AM

Jay Hovdey: Hollywood Park goes out on the cheap


If it seems inappropriate to dwell on the final day of Hollywood Park last Sunday instead of the first day of the 2013-14 season at Santa Anita Park on Thursday, well, you had to be there.

Uncounted thousands jammed the Turf Club and clubhouse boxes. Grandstand seats still filthy from recent rains were dusted off by the backsides of pilgrims turning out for one last look. To suggest that the lame-duck track management was neither ready nor willing to properly serve such a crowd is a gross understatement. Programs were gone by the fourth race. Soon after that, food became scarce.

“We got here late,” apologized California Horse Racing Board member Bo Derek, who brought a group of friends and provided Betfair Hollywood Park with a whiff of its celebrity past. “We couldn’t find anything to eat, so Victor Espinoza took us into the jocks’ room kitchen and bought us some chips and peanuts.” What a gent.

A little after 5 p.m., as Turf Club patrons scrounged for booze and breadsticks, the frustrated waitstaff formed a conga line and danced through the aisles in an attempt to raise sagging spirits. Their game effort was greeted with pleasant surprise and rhythmic applause – here was the closing-day celebration people were waiting for – but the gesture petered out, and the cool day limped into chilly night.

The fact that Hollywood Park meant so much to so many people for 75 years seemed lost on an ownership that has been marking time until the economy turned around just enough to pull the plug.

Among the special groups attending the final program was a delegation from the Hollywood Park Land Co., which sprung from the Bay Meadows Land Co., which is a creation of Stockbridge Investments, which answers to its profit-driven mandate as an entity far, far removed from the bricks, blood, and mortar of Thoroughbred racing. Word is they had a good time.

In many ways, Hollywood’s finale felt like just another busy day from a more exciting time. At least that’s how the former Canadian Derby winner Tommy Danzigger treated the proceedings as he led the field into the paddock for the last of 11 races. Now 7, Tommy D. was feeling his oats, spinning and rearing beneath his saddling tree and finally forcing trainer Robert Gilker to take him into a covered stall.

Out they came, the last brigade, as the crowd that remained pressed forward in the dark. Hornblower Jay Cohen played the obligatory “Auld Lang Syne,” followed by a peppy “Hooray for Hollywood,” as riders responded to fans with nods and a few waves.

They put on a good show, too, in a 1 1/16-mile race run over a worn, dormant Bermuda grass course painted a shade of green never seen before in nature. Announcer Vic Stauffer, who to that point had refrained from sloppy sentimentality and presented the card with class, lapsed into a baffling recitation of great horses in Hollywood history midway through the race, even as the earnest dozen runners going for a $50,000 starter-allowance pot were out there putting their lives on the line.

Fortunately, Stauffer finished his maudlin reverie in plenty of time to pick up the live action and take Woodmans Luck and Corey Nakatani to the line a slam-bang nose in front of Depreciable and Joe Talamo. The winner is owned by Dave and Holly Wilson, who won the 2000 Hollywood Gold Cup with Early Pioneer, the last time Hollywood Park had a million-dollar race. Wilson was asked if there were any silver linings to the track’s end.

“Sometimes things have to fall apart for new things to come together,” he replied.

And that was it. No band playing fans to the exits. No post-race party for those who might have lingered. Only a hard-bitten cadre of late-night players gathered in a wing of the clubhouse betting on the night sport from Los Alamitos, Northfield Park, and Balmoral. Up in the director’s room loft, Santa Anita Park head man Keith Brackpool surveyed the somber closing notes of what used to be a racing stadium every bit the equal of his crosstown Arcadia track.

“Far be it from me to second-guess, but you would have hoped for a bit more ceremony today,” Brackpool said. “What would have been wrong with ending the day in the sunshine, at 3 o’clock, with a champagne toast and a gesture of thanks all around?”

They will start coming together to fill the void left by Hollywood Park, one piece at a time, beginning the day after Christmas, when Santa Anita opens for its 77th season. There will be mariachis, the formidable statues of Seabiscuit, Zenyatta, and John Henry, and the traditional calendar giveaway with the special dates of Oct. 31 and Nov. 1 marked for a return of the Breeders’ Cup.

As for the gladiators, the featured $300,000 Malibu and $300,000 La Brea stakes for a salty bunch of 3-year-old colts and fillies will set the table for the older divisions of 2014.

“I can promise you one thing,” Brackpool added, with one last glance at Hollywood’s dreary farewell. “We’ll have a lot more theater.”

What a concept.