Past the turnstiles of Betfair Hollywood Park lurks a pleasant Southern California vibe — palm trees here, a gazebo there, with a man selling the Daily Racing Form to give bettors access to horse racing's dizzyingly comprehensive statistics on each thoroughbred. Beyond the carefully designed entry on the ground floor, an aggressively male, working-class throng of punters bets various East Coast tracks through the magic of simulcasting.
If it's true that it's little girls who fall in love with horses, then it's the exclusive dominion of haggard-looking men to wager on them relentlessly. These gentlemen aren't much to gaze at, and they've probably lost a lot. But with every race comes newfound optimism. They've set up shop, their belongings and tip sheets sprawled across tables seemingly borrowed from bingo parlors, their salty rapport coaxing smiles from even the most stoic interlopers.
As with most edifices, things get progressively ritzier at Hollywood Park the higher you sit. To upgrade would cost these first-floor railbirds an extra $2 apiece, the equivalent of the minimum wager on a single race. Yet they cling stubbornly to the bottom rung, like prisoners who don't really want to be freed. It's not for nothing that Charles Bukowski ventured to Hollywood Park religiously in search of characters to populate his books.
Now, they're about to be evicted, as the 75-year-old Inglewood track closes its doors for good after a final race on Dec. 22, its historic structures and vistas soon to be obliterated by a wrecking ball and transformed into a 238-acre mixed-use development with homes, parks, retail and — somewhat incongruously — the existing casino adjacent to the track.
"This track has gone down," says retired Inglewood electrician Gerald Frazier, a cigarette dangling from his mouth as he pores over an eclectically curated collection of equine data. "To me, this used to be a better track than Santa Anita."
Two levels above the proletariat, in the Turf Club, sits J.J. Swafford, an elderly house painter who lives in South Los Angeles. Dressed in a dark suit, he's alone at a private betting carrel with a tiny TV set. "It's a big-time place, man," he says of his natty attire. His fondest memory, after three decades of dutifully heading to Hollywood Park between purchases of primer: "Winning money."
After Hollywood closes forever, Swafford presumes he'll play the ponies at the off-track betting parlor being planned for Hollywood Park Casino next door. "I don't understand why it's leaving," he says. "It's right in the middle of the city. Everybody can get to it. If this track can't make it, how can any track?"
Sitting in a box among old friends in the second-floor grandstand, Gertha Knowles is similarly dumbfounded. A regal African-American woman who could play Michelle Obama's mother in a movie, she's been coming to Hollywood Park since 1964, and was especially fond of the track's winningest jockey, the legendary Laffit Pincay Jr. "This is a landmark," she says. "They should never close this track."
But "they" don't care. They're land developers, and as rough-and-tumble as this part of Inglewood is, the property that Hollywood Park sits on represents "the second-largest parcel of undeveloped land in L.A. County," according to Gerard McCallum of Wilson Meany, the development company that owns the track under the moniker of Bay Meadows Land Company.
When Bay Meadows Land Company bought Hollywood Park in 2005 from Churchill Downs Inc. for nearly $260 million — almost double what the publicly traded, Kentucky-based behemoth paid private owner R.D. Hubbard in 1999 — McCallum insists his employers were still intent on keeping the racetrack afloat. "We did a number of different things with the state Legislature that didn't go anywhere, and spent quite a bit of money trying to do that," he says of his company's efforts to get slot machines installed in the adjacent casino, which, in turn, would have bolstered purses at the track, thus presumably attracting fuller and higher-caliber fields.
Mike Mitchell, Hollywood's second-winningest trainer behind the late Bobby Frankel, finds this claim absurd, especially in light of the fact that the same developers aggressively — and successfully — sought to shutter Northern California's Bay Meadows Racetrack, even as they co-opted its moniker. "There's just no way we should have lost this racetrack," Mitchell says of Hollywood Park. "They sold it to these developers, and we've been screwed ever since. And all I can do is thank Churchill for that."
"The sport should not give itself away to development companies to run its racetracks, people whose primary motivation is something besides horse racing," agrees Jay Hovdey, the Daily Racing Form's executive columnist, who grew up attending races at Hollywood Park and is married to the trailblazing jockey Julie Krone. "The closure of Hollywood Park should be a lesson once and for all that thoroughbred racetracks should not be owned by publicly traded companies, whose prime directive is to maximize shareholder profit. Churchill Downs Inc. certainly fulfilled its mission in that regard when it sold the property to a land-development company for twice its purchase price. Now the ultimate cost of that transaction is being paid by the California thoroughbred community."