12/12/2013 4:25PM

Mary Simon: Hollywood Park won't be forgotten


They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot ...
With a pink hotel, a boutique
And a swinging hot spot.
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
’Til it’s gone?

– Joni Mitchell

Shakespeare was right – parting really can be such sweet sorrow. And sometimes, the pain of it can broadside you when you least expect it. That surely is the case today as I bid sentimental adieu to a place I’d long viewed as unlovable, garish, and inconvenient. Suddenly, I’m wishing I owned that magic wand the late racing secretary Frank “Jimmy” Kilroe spoke of – an implement capable of transporting us back to a time when American horse racing topped the fan popularity charts ... and when Hollywood Park reigned supreme.

Hollywood truly was sporting royalty once upon a time, a glamorous, glitzy course of lakes, flowers, swans, packed stands, and A-list celebrities, who not only regularly appeared at the track but owned and helped run it. Imagine walking past the paddock and bumping into Jimmy Stewart ... Bing Crosby ... Marlene Dietrich. An afternoon at the Inglewood course in the 1940s and ’50s might have felt like a stroll down Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.

Unfortunately, I missed all of that. By the 1970s, Inglewood’s famed course existed in a fading twilight world, caught somewhere between the glory and the gloaming. Movie stars were ever harder to find. Weekday crowds were getting smaller. The neighborhood was changing.

I came of age in those days, and at 21, lucked into my dream job as editorial assistant at the Thoroughbred of California magazine, house publication for the state breeders association. My office was a claustrophobic cube with barely room for a desk, but I had a window on paradise  – the forest green painted grandstands of Santa Anita Park. Dr. Strub’s art deco masterpiece became my playground. In then-safe, middle-class Arcadia, my biggest perceived danger was crossing Colorado Place en route to lunch at the track. I got around that simply by looking both ways.

Santa Anita’s crosstown Inglewood compatriot offered a striking study in contrasts.

[Hollywood Park: What a run it had!]

First, there was that exquisitely dangerous 30-mile maze of freeways between Arcadia and Hollywood Park, a navigational driving feat that required the courage of Braveheart and the luck of a leprechaun. Especially memorable was a nasty and antiquated patch of narrow, curvy road built in the ’50s when extremely short on-ramps punctuated by stop signs somehow seemed like a good idea.

Then came that final stretch down Century Boulevard, where residents of once-cute 1930s bungalows gazed at the world through barred windows; where boarded-up storefronts blighted the landscape; where people listlessly wandered the sidewalks, looking for food, jobs, trouble; where newspapers and beer cans stacked up against fences topped with curled barbed wire, like a sorrowful garbage convention.

The incipient social and physical decay visible in those final furlongs to Hollywood Park became less incipient and more painfully evident with each passing year. Once in a while, our staff had to pull overnighters there – usually for multi-day horse sales. We knew what hotels to avoid, which was pretty much all of them, considering our meager corporate budget. One we often stayed at was a now-defunct, degenerate place called the Airport Park, where rapists lurked in the darkened stairwells (of my mind) at all hours, and where I was sure to find a groping, grinning pervert waiting for me on the elevator.

[Hollywood Park: A top-25 list from 75 years]

My fears weren’t all products of an overactive imagination. Crime was off the charts in Inglewood of the ’70s, and dangers were very real – a fact underscored when my boss, CTBA president Ben Ridder, was assaulted one evening in the track parking lot. The newspaper magnate was a big, sturdy man, and though elderly, would not take this affront sitting down. He clubbed his attacker upside the head with a sale catalog, a miscalculation that earned him two vicious stab wounds and an ambulance ride to the hospital.

[Hollywood Park: Remembering a grand track]

In 1976, it was just as “exciting” for me in the barn area, where I groomed at the March racing age sale. A sleek bay in a nearby consignment got a lot of attention that week, but so did a handsome chestnut under my own care. Problem is, he was a huge, highly combustible, crazy son-of-a-loon, who bit like a barracuda, routinely dragged me skidding from the stall in a cloud of dust, and managed to plant a well-placed aluminum-clad hoof center on my left knee ... which still aches today in cool, damp weather. I don’t recall what he brought, but whatever it was, it was too much; he finished his 5-0-0-0 career for $2,500 claiming at Agua Caliente. The sleek bay down the aisle? That would be two-time Arc de Triomphe winner Alleged.

Hollywood Park wasn’t all about fear and loathing. There were good times, too. In fact, some of the best.

There, in ’79, I watched from the rail as Affirmed bounded through the stretch like a cheetah, en route to victory in the Californian. An old gentleman nearby all but split my eardrums that afternoon with his joyous, outsized shriek of “GOODNIGHT, IRENE!”

More importantly, Hollywood is where, in 1983, I met the lanky red-headed writer/editor who would become my best friend and eventually my husband.

Finally, it was there that a year later I watched racing history unfurl itself in all its glory with the launching of Breeders’ Cup.

I never returned to Hollywood Park after watching Wild Again, Gate Dancer, and Slew o’ Gold battle it out to the finish of that epic first Classic. I didn’t need to. Better to remember it as it was, on one of the greatest afternoons in its existence.

The music of erosion has long been a familiar one at American racetracks, sending some quite literally to the dogs and turning others into training centers. Most, however, have disappeared altogether in a generic maze of shopping malls, offices, and residential units, a fate that now awaits Hollywood Park. What was once special, alive, and oh, so unique, will become just one more brick in the wall of history. In a Darwinian world where only the fittest survive, Hollywood Park ultimately could not compete.

[Jay Hovdey: Hollywood Park's rich history can never be torn down]

Dec. 22 will represent the endgame for this once-great racecourse that has hosted more than 55 Hall of Fame champions, plus recent home girl, Zenyatta. As of that day, after three-quarters of a century, Hollywood Park will be removed from the endangered list and transferred into the realm of legend and lore ... every bit as gone as the saber-toothed tigers and mastodons who once trod its fertile acres.

Mary Simon is a dual Eclipse Award-winning writer and frequent contributor to Daily Racing Form.