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Updated on 07/07/2013 12:20AM
Jay Hovdey: Last call for Hollywood's Gold Cup
By Jay Hovdey
In Los Angeles, the year 1949 began with three days of snow. Billy Graham came to town to launch his first big tent revival. And, on the night of May 5, the Hollywood Park grandstand burned down.
There was no direct connection among the three apocalyptic events, other than the fact they all made the top headline in the L.A. Times. It has not snowed in downtown Los Angeles since Jan. 9, 1949. Billy Graham is still hanging in there. As for Hollywood Park, the track reopened in late June of 1950 and has had a pretty good run for the past 63 years.
It has not been without disruption. The first part of the 1979 meet was greeted by picket lines of striking pari-mutuel clerks whose jobs were threatened by newly installed semi-automated teller machinery. Four racing programs were canceled in May of 1992 due to the track’s proximity to the riots triggered by the verdict in the Rodney King police beating. Later in that same 1992 season, the June 29 Landers earthquake caused Hollywood Park’s therapeutic equine swimming pool to slosh over its rim and flood a portion of the backstretch on the main track. In 2005, turf racing had to be canceled for the entire fall meet when the grass planted for a new course failed to grow.
But there was nothing like the fire. At least not until now, when the track of the lakes and flowers, Seabiscuit and Swaps, Shoemaker, Whittingham and just about every other iconic Thoroughbred personality you can name will be razed in 2014 to make way for a multi-use development of shops, office space, and housing.
Saturday’s final running of the Hollywood Gold Cup has fans and media scrambling for the misty-eyed reminiscences, and there are plenty, from the three-peats of Native Diver and Lava Man, to the isolated splendor of Ack Ack and Cigar, to the inspiring professionalism of Gallant Man, Affirmed, and Best Pal.
Still, there was nothing quite like the fire. Throughout the night, firefighters from Inglewood and Los Angeles fought the blaze that swept the length of the grandstand in barely 20 minutes. Pump crews sucked water from the infield swan ponds, while stable crews watched helplessly from the backstretch and tried to quiet their horses.
In the days that followed, as demolition teams began the work of removing the wreckage, the horses gearing up for the May 17 opening of the Hollywood meet had to be moved across town to Santa Anita. As with most mass evacuations, not everything went smoothly.
“It was a very unusual situation,” recalled Dr. Jack Robbins, one of a handful of backstretch practitioners at the time. “I remember they were trying to load a horse at Rex Ellsworth’s barn, and he somehow got his hind legs over the butt-board. He took all the skin off both legs right down to the cannon bones.
“The next morning we were at Santa Anita, and that same horse was coming off the track, with his legs smeared in a purple lotion they used back then for scrapes and cuts,” Robbins said. “The kid that worked for me asked who it was, and they told him his name was ‘Kay-led.’ ”
It was Khaled, the imported English stallion that Ellsworth and his trainer, Mesh Tenney, were trying turn back into a racehorse. They failed, Khaled went to stud in 1950, and went on to sire 61 stakes winners, including Hollywood Gold Cup winners Correspondent and Swaps.
Of more interest to contemporary concerns is what happened to the 1949 Hollywood Park meet. All 50 days were run at Santa Anita, including all of the major stakes, and somehow California racing survived.
Expectations were conservative for a Santa Anita late spring and summer season thrust so suddenly upon local racegoers. Furthermore, the lack of proximity to the huge aircraft and industrial plants of Hollywood Park’s west side neighborhood made it unlikely that the emergency meet could live up to the track’s 1948 figures of average daily attendance (27,891) and handle ($1.9 million). Hollywood-at-Santa Anita ended up averaging 22,292 and $1.4 million.
The winner of the displaced ’49 Gold Cup was Solidarity, a California-bred son of Alibhai who was bred by Louis B. Mayer and bought at the Mayer dispersal by Harry Curland, the catering mogul, for his daughter Bernice Goldstone. With Ralph Neves aboard, Solidarity tied Seabiscuit’s Santa Anita track record in defeating a solid Gold Cup field that included Vulcan’s Forge, Ace Admiral, and Double Jay.
“It was different, racing at Santa Anita in the summer,” said Ed Goldstone, who was in the winner’s circle that day alongside his mother and still has the pictures to prove it.
Goldstone followed in the footsteps of his father, Nat Goldstone, one of the top theatrical agents of the big studio era in movies. Goldstone has kept the family’s name among the ranks of horse owners as well.
“I was just a kid, but when they ran the Gold Cup at Santa Anita, the image of Hollywood Park burning down was still fresh, and everyone wondering what we were going to do,” Goldstone said. “But racing dealt with it. And that day turned out to be quite a moment in our family.”
This time next year, there likely will be some kind of race for older horses over the Santa Anita Park main track offering a purse of a significant amount. In all likelihood it will not be called the Hollywood Gold Cup (suggestions for a name are welcome), and it will start its history from scratch. It will also be hot, but if the beer is cold and the horses are hydrated, who cares?
In the meantime, there will be a last winner of the Hollywood Gold Cup on Saturday. Anyone paying attention knows that Game On Dude has the script pretty much down pat. He won impressively in 2012 and lost in the final jump the year before, and nothing he has done during his 3-for-3 run in 2013 suggests he has lost a step at age six.
If nothing else, the people behind Californian winner Clubhouse Ride deserve high praise for trying Game On Dude for a fourth time in the past five months. They even could take encouragement from the fact that there was only half a length separating the two at the end of the Charles Town Classic in April. But that was Charles Town, and this is Hollywood Park. Or at least it was.
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Solidarity broke Seabiscuit's track record in the 1949 Hollywood Gold Cup at Santa Anita. He tied Seabiscuit's track record of 2:01 1/5.
Jay: The Hollywood Gold Cup should be picked up by the fall 2014 Del Mar meet. Del Mar and the racing industry need to take this opportunity to look at something different even if it is on experimental basis. The meet should consider opening with a Monday night football theme with related special promotions that will continue after the racing card with the televised game being the center of attention. With the Hollywood Grade 1 races are up for grabs they can elect to run one of these races that day as the feature race. The track should go dark until Friday with three days of weekend cards. Put the lights in and run a Friday night card from then on. All weekend cards in the fall meet should have 15 races with full fields and post times that are a bit closer in time. The younger generation of gamblers want constant action. They dislike waiting around. Have a special card on Veterans Day with a military theme to honor our veterans and let them have free admission. They should run a Grade 1 Hollywood race on this day too. Perhaps the American Oaks in honor of America and the veterans. The Thanksgiving Day card should be the biggest day of all. There are many tracks running on that day. The card should include an all-stakes pick six with all six races perhaps being Hollywood Park graded races with the feature race being the Hollywood Gold Cup. The theme on that day should be the history and influence of Hollywood on Del Mar Racing. Make it a retro day and charge 1937 prices in honor of Del Mar's first opening day and invite some Hollywood celebrities to make the trophy presentations. These races might even have Eclipse Award implications and perhaps entice owners to consider running one more time in 2014. It would also provide important races for horses that weren't nominated for the Breeder's Cup or missed it due to a minor injury. I'm sure you can come up with some great ideas that might help bring horse racing in California into the 21st century.
Don't forget Zenyatta who won some of her races at HP. I remember the Vanity Handicap where she won in typical fashion coming in strong in the stretch and taking the lead in the final strides.
Jay: Absolutely retain the name Hollywood Gold Cup so that its history and prestige carries forward as a reminder of what once was. --Ron Parker
Way to much history not to keep calling it the Hollywood Gold Cup no matter where the hell they run it...The NAME of the race is one of the best ones in American Horse Racing HISTORY!!!...Period...
One other possibility for at least the Hollywood Gold Cup, though it would mean the race would be moving to the east: Penn National Gaming has branded their casinos as "Hollywood Casino" for the most part. As they have become quite innovative in making splashes with races like the Charles Town Classic (which in 2011 was actually the top race of the entire year for older horses) at Charles Town and this year the Penn Mile (for three year olds on turf) at Penn National, perhaps Penn National should make a bid to take over the Hollywood Gold Cup after this year. Given Penn National is actually known as "Hollywood Casino at Penn National Race Course," it would in my view make sense for Penn National to agree to take over running the Hollywood Gold Cup, which would give Penn National an instant Grade 1 stake. Other races Penn National could take over (and in some cases revert back to their original names) are the Charles Wittingham (that race could go back to being known as the Hollywood Turf Handicap/Hollywood Invitational), Hollywood Turf Cup, Hollywood Prevue, Hollywood (Cash Call) Futurity, Hollywood Starlet along with others. Those races could fit in with the Penn National branding of "Hollywood Casino" and in the process keep those races alive, even if many might not like those races suddenly being contested 2,500 miles away from where they originated.
Thanks betfair for the final nail in the Hollywood coffin.No exchange betting no racing.Go back where you came from and take that bunch of nuts on TVG with you.
Would love to see you writing horse racing books, like the Seabiscuit book Laura wrote. You are a fantastic and evocative writer.
Sill loving Affirmed after all these years...
I hope Santa Anita keeps the name. It's not necessarily track specific and would be a nice thing to do, y'know?
HP should give the naming rights of the Hollywood Gold Cup to Santa Anita and they should accept the gift. The history would be just that - something to think about when the moon has gone over the mountain and the last firefly has flown away. Has to be better than The Pep Boys Summer Classic (apologies to Manny, Moe & Jack) So it is written, so it is done.
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