11/28/2013 12:54PM

Jay Hovdey: Mieszerski has melancholy job of promoting Hollywood as it closes

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It’s a melancholy job, and it could get to a person if they let it – dwelling on the last running of the Hollywood Gold Cup, the last Californian, the last in a long line of historic Hollywood Derbies. But somebody has to be in charge of spreading the word through traditional and social media as Hollywood Park nears the end of its 75-year run, and who better to do it than Bob Mieszerski.

In his role as the last in a respected lineage of Hollywood Park publicity directors – including Bob Benoit, Nat Wess, Jim Peden, and Mike Mooney – Mieszerski has plowed ahead in these final months as if Hollywood is still the only game in town, which it is, at least until the last fan leaves the house on the afternoon of Dec. 22.

“It’s certainly sad, but when I got this job I was happy and grateful for the opportunity, and I knew this day would eventually come,” Mieszerski said. “Of course, I hoped it would be later rather than sooner.”

Mieszerski is no different from most racing fans. His most vivid experience came at an early age in the company of family, in July 1977, and it just happened to take place at Hollywood Park.

“My grandfather was big into racing, and my grandparents were visiting from New York,” Mieszerski said. “It was when Seattle Slew came to Hollywood after winning the Triple Crown. Of course, my grandfather wanted to go, so there we were, sitting way at the end of the grandstand. The build-up to his appearance was so great, and there was such an incredible atmosphere being one of the 68,000-plus here that day.”

Mieszerski was 20 and had just started working as a copy boy for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, the “we try harder” afternoon paper in a market dominated by the Los Angeles Times.

Fortunately, Mieszerski’s ambitions were aimed higher. Within the year, his handicapping skills found a home in the selection box alongside such racing household names as Gordon Jones and Jerry Antonucci. By 1985 Mieszerski was the racing reporter on the beat. In 1986 he covered his first Kentucky Derby – won by L.A. hometown heroes Ferdinand, Bill Shoemaker, and Charlie Whittingham – and in 1987 he was at Belmont Park for the paper when Alysheba tried to win the Triple Crown. Later that year, Mieszerski was on the scene at Hollywood Park for a rare meeting of Derby winners when Ferdinand faced down Alysheba in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

“The Herald Examiner was very big into racing when I started,” Mieszerski said. “One of the first times I came to the press box at Hollywood Park was just a weekday afternoon. There were six or seven Herald Examiner people there, including Gordon, Jerry, Allan Malamud, Jack Disney. Racing was a big part of their lives.”

As a survivor, the unflappable Mieszerski takes a backseat to no one. In 1989 he was about to get on a plane bound for the Breeders’ Cup in Miami when he got word that his paper had folded. Within days he was hired as lead handicapper and reporter at the Los Angeles Times. When the Times eventually scaled back its racing coverage and downsized its sports staff, Mieszerski eventually found a home at Hollywood Park, beginning the spring of 2010.

“Working here when Zenyatta won another Vanity and then her final California appearance later that year in the Lady’s Secret – those were almost like the old days,” Mieszerski said. “The crowds may not have been as large as in the past, but for her they were just as intense.”

Now, in these waning hours of Hollywood Park, Mieszerski lords over a large press box built for big-time events but now home to only a handful of regulars. There probably will be a few extra media mouths to feed this weekend, when Saturday’s program includes potentially entertaining runnings of the Generous Stakes and the Miesque Stakes for 2-year-olds on turf, while Sunday’s card is topped by one last Matriarch for fillies and mares and the 72nd and final running of the Hollywood Derby.

All that’s old hat as far as publicity is concerned. The real story is the closure of the racetrack, and Mieszerski has had plenty of interest.

“I’ve tried to act like it’s just another meet,” he said. “I have a job to do, and hopefully we can get some coverage on some of the bigger races. You do get a little more interest knowing the track is going away. John Branch is here for the New York Times to write about the closing. The L.A. Weekly has a feature coming out. People will say, ‘Oh, it’s going away. We’d better get out there.’ That’s just human nature, and as we get closer to the end there will be more people interested.

“I wasn’t a Raiders or a Rams fan, but I understand the agony of a team leaving town,” Mieszerski added. “It’s somewhat like that. As far as people are concerned Hollywood Park has always been here. The seasons were the same every year. And now for that to suddenly change is going to be very different, and very . . . strange. That’s the best way I can describe it.”