"I'll be on the radio," Bob Creelman mutters to his secretary as he strides out of his office. He sure will. The walkie-talkie in his pocket is rasping and squawking already.
Hollywood Park has the largest seating capacity of any racetrack in the world--10 acres under roof, as Creelman likes to put it--and walkie-talkies are the staff's natural means of communication. Creelman, general manager of Epicurean Inc., the track's food service company, is in charge of five restaurants and 56 concession stands. Lots of people need to talk to him.
Particularly now, because the track is in the midst of major changes. As of Feb. 4, the Hollywood Park Operating Co. has had a new chairman, R. D. Hubbard, who has promised sweeping changes in the track's operations in the hope of winning back the race fans who had become alienated under the regime of his predecessor, Marje Everett.
A lot of Everett's unpopularity was due to her changes in track facilities. Some of the lakes in the infield--which had given Hollywood Park its sobriquet "The Track of Lakes and Flowers"--were taken out for concession stands ("which never flew," says Creelman), and the Goose Girl who had paddled around the lakes was eliminated. A new five-story premium seating facility, the Pavilion of the Stars, was added south of the Clubhouse, and the finish line was moved for the viewing convenience of Pavilion seat holders--to the disgruntlement of Clubhouse and Grandstand patrons.
As Creelman talks about the changes effected by the new regime, he often prefaces some remark with the words, "Now, I don't want to get into Marje." But he will mildly note, "As you can see from here, the Pavilion is a straight structure, but at this point the track curves. From a sight-line standpoint, it could have been done better."
The new regime has gone to great lengths to undo many of Everett's innovations. The infield concession stands are down; it promises to restore the lakes and the Goose Girl. The finish line has been moved back, and only the first two floors of the Pavilion will be used, and only on weekends. The other floors will be reserved for off-season inter-track betting, as when the Derby or the Preakness is simulcast to Hollywood Park. Patrons are being inundated with questionnaires on how they'd like the track improved.
The food operations have their own bad reputation to overcome. The previous regime introduced the Food Fair, a collection of stands purporting to represent international cuisine (e.g. Polish sausage). Otherwise, changes tended to be downgrades. At the hot dog stands, the condiment pumps were removed, and catsup and mustard became available only in little plastic packets. The pumps are now back.
Creelman, half the time speaking into his spluttering walkie-talkie, is heading for the Clubhouse section ($7 admission) to inspect progress on a bar formerly known as Margaritaville and now being redesigned as the Hollywood Bar & Lounge. The place has been stripped down to the wall studs--one wall remains, with the words "Leave Wall" scrawled on it--and architect Gary Lamb is chatting eagerly about the new plans: live music, photos of movie stars associated with the track on the walls and the tables; hot and cold hors d'oeuvres, happy-hour buffet.
And lots of windows for a view of the saddling paddock--the new administration is big on windows. "And upstairs in the Clubhouse Restaurant," Lamb says, "we can build outdoor patio seating with an even better view."
"The best view of the paddock is from the kitchen upstairs," says executive chef Michael Northern, pointing it out on the plans. "You're going to want to chew into that." A chef's gesture of self-sacrifice.
From the future Hollywood Bar, Creelman heads past the amusingly named Study Hall--a handicapping room dedicated to those intense, private researches whose text is the Daily Racing Form. His path turns north toward the Food Fair, located on the other side of a hand-stamp inspector in the general admission Grandstand section. Here chef Northern had already begun making changes last year, under an agreement with Levy Restaurants of Chicago, a food concession specialist that services Cubs Stadium, Sears Tower, Disney World and other Eastern venues.
"I couldn't believe it when I came," says Northern, a 16-year veteran with Levy. "Chicken wasn't on the menu upstairs in any form. Now there's a chicken burger in the burger stands, and up in the Clubhouse and the Turf Club there's a chicken breast sandwich, a chicken pot pie, chicken salad, chicken tostada."
And here in the Food Fair, not one but two chicken wing stands: one for barbecue wings, the other for Buffalo and teriyaki. The Food Fair has its own chicken salad too.