07/18/2002 11:00PM

Sunset stirs Hollywood hopes


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - In the beginning, which would be 1938, the closing-day feature at Hollywood Park was known as the Aloha Handicap.

Apparently, this was confusing, since "aloha" can mean "hello" as well as "goodbye," and people kept showing up the following day. In 1940 the Aloha Handicap became the Sunset.

And while the growing rivalry between Ringaskiddy and Continental Red has yet to ignite the imagination in the manner of, say, Salvator and Tenny, Sunday's Sunset should provoke enough interest to hold the attention for two and a half minutes or so.

The Sunset has an entertaining history. It was a dirt race of a mile and five-eighths from 1941 through 1966, with the exception of 1950, when Hill Prince won a nine-furlong Sunset contested on Dec. 15. A special late-season meet was necessary because of a grandstand fire.

In 1967, the Sunset was turned over to Hollywood's spanking new grass course. Great chunks of the colorful infield had been displaced to make room for the turf oval and its inner chute, but it was worth it. Bill Shoemaker won the first version of the reinvented Sunset at a mile and one-half aboard Hill Clown, for owner George Pope and trainer Bill Finnegan.

Fort Marcy made his first trip West to win the 1968 Sunset as a mere lad of 4. Over the Counter surprised subsequent champions Cougar and Typecast to win a two-mile edition of the Sunset in 1971. Exceller carried 130 pounds to win in 1978.

Exceller was also the first of five Sunsets in a row for trainer Charlie Whittingham, whose monopoly on 12-furlong turf horses could have been the target of an SEC investigation. It took John Henry, at the age of nine, to snap the streak in 1984.

Prospects for the 1985 Sunset were ensnared in a threatened entry boycott by Hollywood Park trainers. No, the issue was not workers' compensation insurance. Nor was it a clash over track condition or purses. In mid-July of 1985, horsemen were up in arms over a proposed $100,000 Quarter Horse race to be held as a special promotion on the final Sunday of the meet.

As owners of Los Alamitos Race Course at the time, Hollywood management was merely trying for a little cross promotion. However, they neglected to get approval of the local HBPA, whose president was an outspoken opponent of mixing the breeds. His name was Bobby Frankel.

"We don't want to showcase another breed, because it's competition for us," Frankel told the L.A. Daily News at the time. "Besides that, it cheapens our sport. Mixed racing is for fair meets, not a major meet like this."

The racing board eventually backed the horsemen, and the Quarter Horses stayed home.

The only threat to this year's Sunset has been the ongoing dissatisfaction with the condition of the turf. Over the past 35 years, the course has been tinkered with a number of times. There have been resoddings, transplantings, patching, thatching, and weed eradications, not to mention a lengthening of both straights and the creation of a new first turn.

Since November of 1981, when Hollywood's fall meet commenced, management has prayed for a warm and dry December to keep the Bermuda strong for a few extra weeks, otherwise the dormant roots can be damaged beyond repair.

"This course was not designed for bad weather," said racing secretary Martin Panza. "It was fine when you just ran a summer meet, because that gave it eight months to recover. But then you shove a fall meet in there, and add rain, it just can't take it."

There is a plan - ambitious is the only way to describe it - that would create three new courses at Hollywood Park in approximately the same footprint as the current two. Panza envisions an outer one-turn grass course that embraces a nine-furlong dirt course and a one-mile grass oval, with chute.

In early schematics, a slice of both the grandstand tarmac and the backstretch hillside would be cannibalized, but nothing traumatic.

The mind boggles at the possibilities. There could be one-turn turf miles, as well as six and seven-furlong turf sprints rather than the current five-furlong frenzies. A choice of grass courses would leave them both healthy and able to support an intense summer turf program as well as the fall.

Of course, such dreams cost money. Panza and the Hollywood management team will go before their board of directors at Churchill Downs, Inc. this fall to make the pitch. At the very least, Panza needs to get the green light to replace the current course after the 2003 summer meet and say aloha to the old ground, with its unworkably high mix of silt and clay.

"I'm hoping they'll see the positive ramifications of two turf courses on field size and handle," Panza said. "And the timing is right. It would give people something to rally around. Morale amongst horsemen right now seems so low, with worker's comp and other things. It would be a huge shot in the arm for them to see a company willing to take this kind of leadership."