12/13/2013 3:10PM

Jay Hovdey: Two Hollywood Park races to remember forever


Everyone who has ever pushed through the Hollywood Park turnstiles is feeling obligated to rake through their personal past for seminal experiences at the urban Inglewood, Calif., track. And why not? When it comes to the end of the Hollywood era, most folks already have gone through the first four stages of the grief cycle outlined by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in “On Death and Dying” – denial, anger, bargaining, and depression.

That leaves only acceptance, which always goes down easier when accompanied by the soothing drug of selectively fond memories.

Let’s face it: Hollywood Park always had a lot going for it. Adorned with lakes and flowers and blessed with early-summertime dates, Hollywood way back when guaranteed a lazy, classy afternoon of sport, the perfect place for that first date, first kiss, first cold exacta.

Given the amount of grist the media is getting out of Hollywood’s demise, they ought to close one of these joints every couple of years. It makes the job so much easier when a writer needs only to turn the pages of a press book and dig out a few old clippings.

So, I thumbed through a Hollywood Park press book, dug out a couple of yellowed clippings, and came up with the two Hollywood Park races that will linger the longest in this particular bank of memories. One of them took place in the bright sun of a July afternoon, the other under the lights in November.

The bravest filly I’ve ever seen was Royal Heroine, and Hollywood Park was her battlefield. She won all five of her races there for owner Robert Sangster and her young trainer, John Gosden, and three of them were against the boys.

Somehow, Royal Heroine rose from the wreckage of a terrible accident at Santa Anita in early 1984 – one that claimed the lives of the fine mares High Haven and Sweet Diane – to recover from a nasty leg wound and win the first running of the Breeders’ Cup Mile. That should have been enough to secure a championship.

But lurking in Royal Heroine’s shadow was Sabin, the Lyphard filly from the Woody Stephens stable who went coast to coast in 1984 to win nine stakes. Instead of running in the Breeders’ Cup Mile, Sabin set a course record for the distance the day before in a division of the Allez France. Royal Heroine lowered Sabin’s mark in the Mile, but that solved nothing. They needed to meet.

So, they did in the $200,000 Matriarch Stakes at 1 1/8 miles just 15 days after the Breeders’ Cup. The evening was cool, and the course was yielding. Sabin took the lead with Eddie Maple, while Fernando Toro tucked in aboard Royal Heroine. They both were tracked by Freddy Head and Reine Mathilde, a French filly trained by Alec Head.

When the running began, Toro let Royal Heroine loose in the last furlong, as Sabin fought back. The long season had taken its toll on both fillies, but in the end, Royal Heroine won by a length, with Reine Mathilde getting up to beat Sabin for second. That’s how you decide a championship.

I know I am not alone in choosing the 1979 Hollywood Gold Cup as a race that will burn forever. Whatever Hollywood Park’s owners build on top of what used to be the homestretch, there is no way to bury the sight of those three chestnut warriors banking together past the quarter pole and into the stretch, with a purse of $500,000 on the line in the richest Thoroughbred race on the planet.

Affirmed was on the inside under 132 pounds and Laffit Pincay. Sirlad, the winner of the 1977 Italian Derby and fresh from a win in the Bel Air, was at Affirmed’s throat under 120 and Darrel McHargue, while the major stakes winner Text, no bigger than a minute, attacked from the outside under 119 and Bill Shoemaker.

They had been that way for more than a half-mile, waiting for the other guy to blink. Up in the announcer’s booth, Harry Henson thought he saw a shift in momentum:

“Into the stretch, it’s Text on the outside by a head . . . Sirlad is second by a head . . . Affirmed third, now coming on again on the rail.”

Shoemaker quickly shot his bolt, but what Henson saw was true. Affirmed was stalling, and Sirlad had no quit in him.

“Affirmed ran from the whip,” Pincay said. “He was running on his own to that point, and then I knew I had to shake off Sirlad. When I hit him right-handed, he dug in and pulled away a little, and then a little more when I hit him again. When we had enough, I put the stick up, and he pricked his ears. He was looking for another horse to beat.”

The margin was three-quarters of a length, the winning time for 1 1/4 miles just a tick off the world record. In addition, Affirmed passed Kelso as the all-time money-winning Thoroughbred when that meant something, before the Breeders’ Cup and Dubai World Cup came along. Kelso had held the title since 1964.

It was important to be part of the crowd of 48,884 that day because we knew it was Affirmed’s last race in California, and the chances of ever seeing a Thoroughbred like him again rested somewhere between slim and none. The Matriarch was Royal Heroine’s final race as well. Hollywood Park had provided a true and proper setting for their ultimate displays of courage under pressure, which is the best reason the game should be played at all.