It’s been a sad run for horse racing in this state recently.
Since simulcasting began to permeate the scene 30 years ago, actually going to the track for live racing hasn’t been necessary.
The Sport of Kings has taken a hit that’s seen fields dwindle to four, five, six entrants.
It’s no longer de rigueur for celebrities to be seen in the winner’s circle or for studio moguls to own race courses.
People no longer line up at the entrance gates to jam into the admission-free ninth race. Heck, there are rarely ninth races anymore …
When Hollywood Park recently “celebrated” its 75th anniversary — then closed its doors for good last week — it marked another lightning strike on a sport whose facility-owners’ greed (think casino-style cravings and simulcasting) is eating its young.
Hollywood Park, the brainchild of the Warner Brothers in 1938, saw Seabiscuit, Citation, Swaps, the creation of the exacta, Seattle Slew, Native Diver, the first Breeders’ Cup, Willie Shoemaker and the great gelding John Henry — among many, many others.
But it also saw a kid of the 1950s, a Cub Scout who lived five blocks away from Hollywood Park, cut his sports teeth on the Gold Cup, the Mervyn LeRoy Handicap, Angel Valenzuela and movie star-watching.
It was a special treat for me when my dad would walk me over to Hollywood Park for those Saturday ninth races.
If I had cut the lawn that morning, my $2 allowance would be reinvested on horses named Brave Man, Den Mother or Merit Badge.
Valenzuela was my favorite jockey, but once I gambled on a 36-to-1 horse named Long Ears, with Ray York in the irons.
York’s two-length victory on his great, white steed dazzled even my dad. The upset got this 11-year-old Little Leaguer $76 and made me a believer in miracles — at least at the corner of Prairie Avenue and Century Boulevard in Inglewood.
The horses were beautiful, the jockeys’ silks an explosion of color. Names of thoroughbreds were equally as vibrant.
You didn’t need to bury yourself in The Racing Form to enjoy a day at the track, but I wanted to know everything about the sport.
Hollywood Park introduced me to recycling. I’d pull old Forms from the trash and collect uncashed tickets. Sometimes I’d find a gem. One Saturday I got a $230 daily double ticket, thrown away by some unknowing amateur.
And I became a math whiz …
There are eight furlongs in a mile. Race times are kept in tenths of seconds. To find out how fast a horse was traveling, I became the first 9-year-old in Hawthorne to convert fractions.
While my teacher, Miss Wilkinson, frowned on using a beer-stained tout sheet to demonstrate my aplomb to the class, I nonetheless aced third-grade arithmetic.
Hollypark (as the railbirds called it) had a massive parking lot. It still does. But back in the ’50s there were no gates prohibiting entry.
When the track was dark, my dad would take me to the lot, north of the clubhouse turn where it was secluded (apparently, cops couldn’t see the area from the street) and let me — 12-year-old Bruce — drive the family’s 1949 three-on-the-column Buick.
Seriously. The Reward of Rewards for being good.
In those formative years at the track, my dad introduced me to Mob-connected actor George Raft (very cool, I thought, in an era in which Mickey Cohen was grabbing all the headlines). I saw Cary Grant up close a bunch of times. I shook hands with actress Greer Garson and spilled a hot dog on Hall of Fame trainer Charles Whittingham.
Whittingham was My Guy.
In 50 years he trained the likes of Ferdinand, Porterhouse, Sunday Silence and Ack, Ack. He had a terrific stakes horse in the 1970s, King Pellinore, who became one of my favorites.
My dad liked Charlie because he was an ex-Marine and World War II vet. I liked him because you could count on his horses.
Hollywood Park. Once, five blocks away. Now, a distance memory.
A work-pays-off personal ethic, math mastery, good driving skills, an occasional big payoff … What more could someone ask of one place?
But there was more: My discovery of the sports section in the old Los Angeles Mirror came through horse racing and Hollywood Park.
I’d read the results, the entries. I started each meet with an imaginary bank roll and “pretend bet” the races each day with my dad. The next morning, we’d see how we did and make our next wagers.
Sure, it wasn’t soccer or the Madrigals, but it kept a busy father and his son in touch. I miss those 20 minutes at breakfast. I miss my dad. I will miss Hollywood Park.
While I Have You Here: Hollywood Park is about to become houses, shopping and municipal facilities. Its destruction is part of what local officials call the Inglewood Renaissance.
The facility’s demise leaves Golden Gate Fields, Santa Anita and Del Mar as the only major race courses in California.
And the writing is on the wall for Golden Gate Fields.
The value of real estate on San Francisco Bay has far outdistanced the need/value of an infrequently running, short-fielded track like GGF.
But when it folds, another history lesson will be given.
The great Silky Sullivan — known as the California Comet and Heart Attack for his closing-from-the clouds antics — is buried in the Albany track’s infield. Shoemaker made his mark as an apprentice in these parts and Best Pal, Citation and John Henry — at one time each the world’s leading thoroughbred money-earner — had memorable moments back when people cared about seeing their heroes in person.
— Bruce Gallaudet is a staff writer for The Davis Enterprise. Reach him at [email protected] or 530-320-4456.