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Hollywood Park begins its final act

Track has a storied, starry history, but horse racing sure isn't what it used to be.

November 07, 2013|Paresh Dave
  • Fans cheer as horses make their way around the turn before the homestretch at Hollywood Park.
Fans cheer as horses make their way around the turn before the homestretch… (Richard Hartog / Los Angeles…)

With only seven horses racing and Seattle Slew the clear favorite, many of the 68,000 people at Hollywood Park thought they had a sure bet picking him to finish among the top three.

Yet, few cheers boomed out for Seattle Slew at the finish line that summer day in 1977.

The just-anointed Triple Crown winner had been embarrassed in the Swaps Stakes, finishing fourth, 16 lengths behind J.O. Tobin.

Some considered it the biggest disappointment in Hollywood Park's history -- until this year, when racetrack owners announced the autumn meet that begins Thursday would be the last season in Hollywood Park's 75-year run.

Named by its film industry founders, Hollywood Park began as a glitzy oasis in Inglewood for both the rich and those hoping to strike it rich. These days, many know it for little more than the giant electronic billboard seen on the way to LAX. Average daily attendance during the summer meet skidded downward for all but seven of the last 30 years, to 3,775 in 2013.

At its height almost 50 years ago, 34,000 people a day would turn out to see the likes of Native Diver, who won the Hollywood Gold Cup, the racetrack's marquee race, three years in a row.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, November 09, 2013 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Hollywood Park: An article in the Nov. 7 Sports section about the racetrack's final meet said that Landaluce was a son of Seattle Slew. Landaluce was a daughter of Seattle Slew.

Richard Shapiro, an eventual chairman of the California Horse Racing Board, would jam into the upscale Turf Club in a sport coat and tie in those days, the highlight of his youth. His grandparents owned Native Diver.

"He knew he was an incredible horse," Shapiro said. "He became a crowd favorite, and you were a celebrity just being associated with him."

Shapiro still touches Native Diver's burial site at Hollywood Park during each visit to the track. He's working to relocate the memorial. Landaluce, a brilliant son of Seattle Slew who died as a 2-year-old, and Great Communicator are also buried at Hollywood Park.

It wasn't just the thoroughbreds that brought attention to the track. Evening harness races introduced in 1968 would be galas capped with fireworks.

"Hollywood Park is what Dodger Stadium is to kids today," Shapiro said at the time.

Movie stars, singers and producers were track regulars in the '70s and '80s. Marje Everett, a longtime racing enthusiast who owned and ran several tracks in Chicago, had taken over as Hollywood Park boss. While serenading the stars with drinks and fine music at her house, she would nudge them to come out for races.

Merv Griffin would play the piano at parties. Cary Grant and John Forsythe served on Hollywood Park's board of directors.

Elizabeth Taylor, Alfred Hitchcock and John Wayne would come to recognize the top jockeys, such as Laffit Pincay Jr. He had watched them as a poor child in Panama. Now, they rooted for him.

"Meeting all these great stars was just icing on the cake," Pincay said.

Everett lured in the inaugural Breeders' Cup in 1984 with the help of her checkbook. But she lost control of the track to horse owner R.D. Hubbard in 1991.

He flipped the park's focus to the "$2 bettor." A renovation cost millions of dollars. Infield lakes sparkled again. Flamingos and an attractive Goose Girl made the scene ever more picturesque.

Hubbard built a $20-million casino next door, with hopes that he would attract new visitors to the track and lift Hollywood Park's bottom line. He said the strategy worked. If any track would fold, it would be Santa Anita, Hubbard predicted.

"It would be too hot over at Santa Anita to run races in the summertime," he told The Times in 1998.

But the next year, Hubbard flipped the facilities to Churchill Downs.

Pincay left Hollywood Park with a white Porsche after a December race that year. It was his prize for reaching the top of the all-time wins list. Nearly a third of his 9,530 wins came at Hollywood Park.

As Pincay regularly upgraded the Porsche in retirement, the track fell off in a different direction.

"I used to think, 'I hope it doesn't get worse,' " Pincay said of declining attendance. "But it did, and there was nothing I could do to bring the enthusiasm back."

In 2005, Churchill Downs sold Hollywood Park for $258 million, almost twice as much as its purchase price. The new owners, Bay Meadows Land Company, planned to redevelop the land.

There were still some great moments on the track. Lava Man and his nose-length victory would deliver excitement in 2007 as he became the second to win three Gold Cups in a row. And Zenyatta roused fans with her come-from-behind victories for a welcome hurrah amid the recession.

Now though, Bay Meadows is ready to begin construction on shops, apartments and offices not long after the autumn meet ends Dec. 22.

The casino will remain. The track will go. Santa Anita, Del Mar and Los Alamitos are set to divide what would have been Hollywood Park's race dates the next couple of years.

Stirred by all the competing entertainment options in L.A., Hollywood Park's stewards continually tried new tricks to bring people in. A still-record 80,000 people showed up for a tote bag giveaway in 1980. Even Everett, the majority owner, had to help direct traffic into the packed parking lot. But more recently, creativity has struggled to keep pace with online betting and casinos.

This fall, commemorative pins are scheduled to be given away every Saturday. On Dec. 1, Betfair Hollywood Park's last major promotion will be handing out whatever hats, DVDs and trinkets are left over.

--

paresh.dave@latimes.com

Twitter: @peard33

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