In anything they did, the original investors in Hollywood Park were a group that dripped with ambition.
"You couldn't have stopped Jolie with a gun," George Jessel once said of Al Jolson.
The founding Hollywood Park group, a cast of what seemed like thousands, also included Jack Warner of the Warner brothers, Mervyn LeRoy, who was at work on "The Wizard of Oz," and director Raoul Walsh, who learned the movie business alongside legendary pioneer D.W. Griffith.
It was 1938, 60 years ago, and those movie makers turned racetrack builders didn't know the meaning of the word "undersell."
An early prospectus read, "Hollywood Park is eventually certain to become as famous as Saratoga, Latonia, Belmont Park, Pimlico or Churchill Downs."
Friends of the moguls, and the people who played in their pictures, might have filled the turf club all by themselves.
"More than anything else, I remember all the movie stars that helped make up the crowds in the early days," trainer Noble Threewitt said the other day. "There were movie people everywhere. The name of the place was Hollywood Park, and Hollywood came out in full force to support it. Maybe there are a lot of stars around today too. But it's just that I don't know who they are."
With a name out of Dickens and a background that was southern Illinois and Caliente, Threewitt was training a few horses when Hollywood Park opened June 10, 1938. Now, at 87 but looking as if he's found the fountain of youth, Threewitt is still on hand. Lately, he has been winning an occasional stakes race with the aptly named colt Old Topper.
A contemporary of Threewitt, trainer Charlie Whittingham, 85, won a race at Hollywood Park last Sunday. That was victory No. 857 for Whittingham at the Inglewood track, about 140 more than the next guy. And Whittingham's Hollywood Park victory total in stakes races--222--is about 130 more than the next guy.
"There are more rules and regulations than when we first started," Whittingham said. "But I had a lot of very good horses over the years."
Hollywood Park's signature race, the Hollywood Gold Cup, has been won a record eight times by Whittingham's horses, and one year, 1973, he ran 1-2-3 with Kennedy Road, Quack and Cougar II.
But in 1938, Whittingham was 15 years away from his first stakes win, and the Gold Cup inaugural, run for a purse of $56,150, went to Seabiscuit, who carried 133 pounds, including jockey George Woolf, while en route to the 1938 horse-of-the-year title. Woolf won the first three Gold Cups, adding victories the next two years with Kayak II and Challedon.
But Native Diver is most solidly linked with the Gold Cup, still the only horse to have won the stake three times. The near-black gelding, trained by Buster Millerick for Mr. and Mrs. L.K. Shapiro, won his third consecutive Gold Cup in 1967, running 1 1/4 miles in 1:58 4/5, a fifth of a second off the then-world record set by Swaps 11 years before.
That third Gold Cup victory made Native Diver the first California-bred to earn $1 million. About two months later, the 8-year-old was dead, the victim of intestinal problems. He is buried near the Hollywood Park paddock.
As for Swaps, if nothing else, his name conjures up versatility, and a long stride that gulped the opposition. Winner of the Kentucky Derby in 1955, Swaps won the '56 Gold Cup, under 130 pounds, setting one of his five world records at distances from a mile to 1 5/8 miles.
With Swaps, the Mormon cowboys from Arizona, owner Rex Ellsworth and trainer Mesh Tenney, became kings. They lost out to Nashua for horse of the year in '55, but the next year Swaps won the title. It is his larger-than-life bronze, atop a marble slab that lists all the Gold cup winners, that greets fans near the clubhouse entrance to the track.
Jockey Bill Shoemaker is an animated part of the Swaps likeness, hard-riding one of the best horses he ever had.
"I've known Shoe since he was 18 years old, and to think what he's been through just tears me up," a tearful Marje Everett said the other day. Everett, 77, ran Hollywood Park from 1972 until R.D. Hubbard took over in 1991.
Shoemaker, 66, retired from riding in 1990, having ridden 2,416 of his record 8,833 winners at Hollywood Park. Paralyzed from the neck down in an automobile accident in 1991, Shoemaker quit training horses last year.
He won 280 stakes at Hollywood, the Gold Cup a record eight times. Starting in 1956, he won the race three consecutive years, with Swaps, Round Table and Gallant Man.
Last weekend, Shoemaker was back at Hollywood, for the trophy presentation after the running of a race that bears his name. His eyes twinkled as he talked about his daughter, Amanda, who was graduating from high school.