Updated on 07/06/2013 11:20PM

Jay Hovdey: Last call for Hollywood's Gold Cup

Benoit & Associates
Clubhouse Ride takes another shot at Game On Dude, for the fourth in the past five months, in the Hollywood Gold Cup.

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.

[HOLLYWOOD GOLD CUP: Get PPs, watch Saturday's card live]

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.