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Man About Town: At Hollywood Park, playing the ponies is family fun

There's food trucks, cheap beer, live music and chances to gamble. The perfect place to bring the little guy.

May 05, 2012|Chris Erskine
  • Fans cheer as the horses near the finish line at Hollywood Park in Inglewood.
Fans cheer as the horses near the finish line at Hollywood Park in Inglewood. (Arkasha Stevenson / Los…)

With a caffeine headache and 60 bucks in my britches, I head out to the pony rides on a Friday night — to glittery, improbable Hollywood Park, now officially Betfair Hollywood Park.

The Inglewood track's spring-summer semester has just started, and on Friday evenings it has what amounts to a horse-racing revival: a little wagering, a few food trucks, followed by a live concert reasonably priced. It's easy to see why these Friday night festivities are such a hit with young people like us.

"I love ponies," the little guy says.

"Me too," I say.

Yeah, I'm taking my third-grader to the racetrack. Big deal. With his DNA, he's going to pick up some vices eventually, so why not the right ones? Show me a guy without vices, and I get immediately nervous. Remember that sanctimonious Jimmy Swaggart? And that choirboy John Edwards?

So I will teach my sons a few of the lesser vices.

Next week: How to pick up wealthy widows.

Till then, we are at the racetrack on a Friday night. My wife, her Royal Poshness, is with us. I remind Posh that sporting events teach you a lot of important life skills.

Indeed, odds-making taught me division, and baseball taught me how to pencil out percentages. From golf, I learned to lie. When you think about it, I'm sort of an overgrown Tom Sawyer.

What I'm saying is that I go to sporting events mostly for the math. Ever read a racing form? It's the advanced calculus of sports.

Me, I can read a racing form, but I was very fortunate to have had a spotty upbringing. Other folks, Posh, for example, base their wagers on horse names, and the jockey's silks, or if a nag seems especially jittery before the race. God bless these casual bettors, who keep horse-racing semi-alive.

By the way, I tell Posh that all horses are especially jittery before a race. You would be too if you were about to race a mile on ballerina ankles, carrying an angry little man with a whip.

I mean, thoroughbreds are the Beyoncés of the animal kingdom — highly pampered and vulnerable to shoe-related disasters. But till we've raced six furlongs in their steel heels, let's not pass judgment.

Posh, she's another matter. First, the shrimp in the Turf Club aren't completely thawed.

"Grilled shrimp should not be half frozen," she scoffs.

I don't know where that's written exactly. Meanwhile, my clam chowder is creamy thick and slightly briny ... perfect.

My martini is a little light, 2 ounces in a thimble glass. I order a special vodka made with steel-cut Prussian grain and hummingbird hormones. It's incredibly smooth, but they frequently skimp you on the pour.

Out on the track, horn blower Jay Cohen is creating these jazzy little prerace interludes that float across the infield on the sea mist. I don't find Hollywood Park dramatically better or worse than Santa Anita, but the ocean air is always ideal. And after sundown, the incoming LAX flights hang in the sky like fireflies.

Tonight, about the fifth race, your typical racetrack types — Teddy Kennedys with sequined eyes and checkered sport coats — begin to give way to a younger crowd filtering in for the post-race concert.

Seeking a fan base that will live past 2015, the track stages some pretty impressive concerts under its Friday Night Live series. Tonight, Pepper; May 11, Devo; June 8, the Wailers.

Admission is $10 before 8:30 and $20 after that. Beer is cheap, the food trucks plentiful and the vibe more like Coachella than a stodgy old track. Sure enough, attendance doubles on Friday nights, officials say.

If this is what it takes to keep stodgy old tracks alive, I'm all for it. In fact, other than the NFL, all sports need to look for ways to rejuvenate themselves.

On the way home, in fact, the City of Brake Lights is all abuzz. Springsteen's playing downtown, and they're shooting off fireworks after the Dodgers game at Chavez Ravine.

The Ravine, it occurs to me, should be our nation's sports Olympus. Keep the stadium and develop the surrounding parks into fitness areas, 5K courses, public batting cages, equestrian centers, swim parks and world-class workout clubs.

Heck, throw in a condo or two, just to make it viable.

Turns out, Hollywood Park isn't just a feel-good hangout on a Friday night. It's an inspiration.

A think tank with ponies.

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