12/23/2013 12:08PM

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.

Alfred Rodriguez More than 1 year ago
Those of us that buy the DRF hard copy most likely ignore a lot of the editorial jibber-jabbar but I finally got around to reading a lot of the "Farewell to Hollywood Park" related stuff from the last month. Certainly lots one could react to in Hovdey's final piece and the reactions that follow but I'm actually surprised Hollywood Park put as much effort into its final season as they did. I was afraid they would simply limp across the finish line. They didn't quite finish straight and strong but at least jogged across the line. I'm a fan of Trevor Denman. He is solid stakes competitor while Vic was a dependable high level claimer. I wish him nothing but the best and hope to hear him calling races some place. His last call was nostalgic but honestly I had a wager on the race and wanted a real call. Okay it was the last race ever from the historic venue so I respected Vic for at least adding some special significance to his call. Now that we have a bit of distance between us and the HOL closure I sure hope the first few weeks of the new Santa Anita meet aren't the new direction for California racing. The fields are much too small for the start of this big meet in SoCal. I'm afraid the beautiful stretch in Inglewood housed more horses than we realized and we are going to be faced with a genuine shortage of horse flesh for awhile.
Hail No More than 1 year ago
All of a sudden Vic is the "greatest", best since HH, people lose credibility when you don't even mention Luke..
DeadHeat46 More than 1 year ago
I had the pleasure of working with Luke during his first announcing gig at G. Rawley White Downs in Texas back in '89...and he skyrocket to the top of his profession in just a few short years with that unique style all his own...a class act indeed.
. Anderson More than 1 year ago
That's Show Biz!
Quite A Dude More than 1 year ago
Jay, you screwed up on the Stauffer take... As bad as Stauffer is as a race caller he pretty much nailed the last call..
Kram Hslew More than 1 year ago
who cares
tukwilatommygun More than 1 year ago
maybe turn it into a camel track
Jackson Jackson More than 1 year ago
Great call by Vic . It's so enjoyable to listen to a call in American English . I can't wait for the other guy to take his accent and his botched calls back to his Minnesota farm . He can take his no whip stance with him too and his contempt for the bettors that pay his salary. Vic is the man . The best since H. Henson. Trevor calls them out of place almost as much as the bum in NY does although he doesn't fall a 1/4 mile behind the race as often. Trevor is tired . The day he could dust off Vic's microphone was never. TD is lucky when he can call the top 3 in the lane correctly. Hovdey was good once upon a time. He's pretty tired himself nowadays . He pops up with a good piece once in a great while these days. This wasn't one of those days .
Walter More than 1 year ago
Do you just write these things to create responses? Trevor Denman is class personified. No need to criticize him if you are looking to applaud Vic Stauffer. Just go ahead and applaud Stauffer.
mikey More than 1 year ago
Maytbe the most comments ever.More for Vic than against.For a guy who was out of work he did a great job.Jay what would your last comments be if you were fired and the DRF was closing.Hope your last post is better than this was.You owe Vic and the fans a BIG I AM SORRY.
DeadHeat46 More than 1 year ago
i bet Vic must have given Julie Krone a bad call way back when and jay just cant get past it...like sands through the hour glass...
Delrene Sims More than 1 year ago
I wasn't there in person but was watching Cal-Racing. I thought Vic's last call was very classy and I did hear "Happy Trails" playing. I don't know who or what entity did that, but it sure started my tear-shedding moment.
Tressa MacKelvie More than 1 year ago
HP played Happy Trails at the end of every meet. It was tradition.
rahman Williams More than 1 year ago
If there is any Sons of Anarchy Fans out there think Charming Heights. Five years from now is might be undeveloped wast land.stuff happens
Gary Peacock More than 1 year ago
Well, at least this reader can take a small bit of satisfaction in Woodman's Luck having been the winner of the final fray on closing day. I don't know what went into the naming of that most excellent turf specialist whose name the winner bore, but I'm almost certain of why it became the name for the immovable, stump-like character portrayed by John Sylvester White on the 70's sitcom hit, Welcome Back Kotter. In real life, John was a sweet, gracious, trusting man who liked the ponies and was not above sending a wager to the windows with a near stranger tout...such as myself. The year was 1977, the runner's name was Denver Queen. A lot to like on paper. Nothing to like about the out-of-the-money finish. I felt badly since confidence in my handicapping skills would surely take a hit when I returned to the ABC studio lot with the bad news. Several other cast members had also gambled chump change, but in was investor Sylvester that had me push ten across the board in his name. As I forlornly watched the replay, a suit and tie clad viewer standing next to me also seemed empathetic with my feelings. It couldn't help be noticed by the color-striped edges of the yellow win tickets (ah...those were the days) that he had dropped that his losses were far greater. They were one hundred dollar tickets! Being a schmoozer, I stuck up a conversation. It turned out that he was DQ's owner. He imparted that his runner had hit it's mouth against the gait, lost a tooth and became a disinterested race participant as her mouth filled with blood. Well, this served as some balm to my wounded ego and gave me a typical "horse story" while relaying the bad news to my 'believers." But, there was no need to worry as far as Mr. Woodman was concerned. After all, here was a man who understood adversity,having fallen victim to the McCarthy's red-scare 1950's witch hunt, during which he was blacklisted and forced to ply his trade in France. He showed the aforementioned grace and chuckled as I presented him with the paper evidence of the day's dealings. What a good sport. Because of him, I've always been partial to Woodman's son's and daughters. I already miss flying into L.A. to visit my too soon departed friend Robert Heyges, Kotter's Epstein. If not for his success, I might not have ever seen the four major California racetracks. And then would never have met Bob Baffert, Bob and Beverly Lewis, Jay Cohen, the only female rider to win a Triple Crown event...oh yeah, and that guy she married who writes for a living. I'd always look forward to seeing the Hollywood oval on the low descent into LAX. I'll remember the guy that showed me a hole in the fence across from The Forum with which one could gain access during simulcast days. From what you've said of upkeep, I'll bet it's still there. As gaping as the hole in the racing landscape.
Hail No More than 1 year ago
Great Story