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Hollywood Park Is Shutting Down. Will Horse Racing Be Next?

Hollywood Park Is Shutting Down. Will Horse Racing Be Next?
PHOTO BY RYAN ORANGE

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."

Shortly before Christmas, Hollywood, where the Breeders' Cup was birthed in 1984, will become the most prestigious racetrack in U.S. history to shut its doors for good. In baseball, the equivalent would be if Fenway Park ceased operating, with no replacement planned. But while America's pastime faces fixable challenges, many have diagnosed horse racing with terminal cancer: The sport is in need of a miracle cure to survive at anything but its most elite level. As the clock ticks, there's no tenable consensus about how to save it.

In a box near Gertha Knowles, a Torrance salesman named Tim Hawley sits with his two sons, Jake, 16, and Nick, 13. The track's bugle player performs a de facto stand-up routine in front of the Hawleys as they pore over the Form, with Jake ultimately picking the winner, a prohibitive long shot.

"He's buying beers," Hawley quips, clearly relishing the fact that his sons have reached an age where he can banter with them like peers.

If people have a connection to a local horse track, it's likely because their parents took them. That holds true for columnist Hovdey — "When I was growing up, going to Hollywood was like going to Chavez Ravine to see the Dodgers," he says — as well as Hawley, whose dad, now 80, is no longer able to attend the races in person. But when he was roughly the age his son is now, he was such a die-hard that he once cut short a vacation in Palm Springs to shlep the entire family to Hollywood to watch a snow-white horse named Vigors run in the Gold Cup.

"There had to have been, like, 75,000 people there," Hawley recalls. "We stood in the very back row. My dad loved that horse so much that he named his cat after it."

But four weeks ago, on opening day of the final autumn meet, a generous count would have put Hollywood Park's attendance at about 2,000 patrons (the average for the first five days of racing was 2,896, with Saturday's card alone drawing 4,081 fans). Hawley, who's 50, stood out as a relative tot among his fellow gamblers, and his teen sons as an outright curiosity.

"I've never once heard any of my friends say anything about a horse race," teenager Jake says.

KFI AM 640 radio host Tim Conway Jr. is a thoroughbred fan whose dad, the famous comedian, frequently took him to the track. Conway Jr. first escorted his own daughter there when she was a year old, only to have his wife get upset when the baby came back with her hands reeking of cigarettes, having poached numerous discarded butts off the Hollywood pavement.

"Hollywood Park is where you get the most desperate people trying to beat the odds," Conway observes. "At Santa Anita and Del Mar, you get a much classier crew. But I like the crew at Hollywood; they're the group fighting to pay rent each month."

He thinks part of what caused younger fans to nearly vanish from racing was parents who think their kids are players, not observers. "A lot of parents nowadays, if your kid plays basketball, they're being bullshitted into thinking they're the next Michael Jordan — and they're not," Conway says. "So instead of going to the track, they're being driven all over the place. And when they don't pan out, they get depressed out of their minds."

Hollywood Park lived up to its name during the reign of Marje Everett, whose stewardship preceded Hubbard's. The track was founded in 1938 by the Warner brothers, and drew stars like Elizabeth Taylor, Mickey Rooney, Mel Brooks, Michael Jackson, Burt Bacharach, Richard Pryor, John Wayne, Merv Griffin, Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart and Walter Matthau. They regularly flocked to the grandstand, as did star athletes, what with the Lakers playing next door at the Forum until 1999.

"The Showtime Lakers were right there," recalls Billy Koch, whose grandfather, film producer Howard Koch (Airplane, Ghost), sat on Hollywood Park's board of directors and once co-owned a horse with actor Telly Savalas. "It was impossible not to have some osmosis of energy. It was where all the stars went."

The younger Koch is a thoroughbred owner himself, and considers Hollywood's closure to be "a dark day for horse racing." But he sees a silver lining, as do others.

"Santa Anita is going to get more dates," Koch says, alluding to the fact that once Hollywood Park shuts down, its dates will be redistributed among other Southern California tracks. "Del Mar is one of the greatest racetracks in America; it will have an entire meet in the fall, and they're widening their turf course so they can host the Breeders' Cup."

Furthermore, Los Alamitos Race Course in Orange County will host a thoroughbred meet in addition to quarter horses. "As disastrous as closing Hollywood may seem and feel," Koch says, "the knowledge that they're leaving has opened other doors, and I think California racing will thrive."

"There's definitely some good that will come out of it," seconds John Sadler, a leading Hollywood trainer. "It's sad that it's going away, but it's not a death grip for California racing."

Of its many maladies, thoroughbred racing's most glaring might be its obsession with pimping out young horses for sex. To wit, on Hollywood Park's opening day, it was announced that this past year's Kentucky Derby champion, 3-year-old Orb, would be retired to stud for a fee of $25,000 per mount after just 12 starts (five of them wins).

How cool would it have been had Kobe Bryant retired at the age of 21, right after winning his first championship with the Lakers? Not very. Yet that's the equivalent of what Orb's owners — and the owners of most Derby winners in recent memory — just did.

"Even with a $5 million Breeders' Cup purse or $10 million in Dubai, the incentives to retire horses early when they've been good 3-year-olds are just too strong," says Andy Beyer, the Washington Post's longtime thoroughbred columnist, who conceived the Beyer speed figures that appear in the DRF. "The economics aren't enough to keep horses in training when you consider what a superstar racehorse can make in stud fees."

For most Americans, horse-racing season begins and ends on the first Saturday in May with the Kentucky Derby. The 3-year-olds who run in Churchill Downs' marquee race are excellent for their age, yet even the race's champion — provided he's not immediately exiled to the breeding shed — typically struggles to finish in the money when competing against older horses six months later in the Breeders' Cup, a two-day extravaganza of championship races held across all ages, genders, lengths and surfaces, which was most recently hosted by Santa Anita on Nov. 1-2.

The effect of this has been to rob the sport of the sort of superstars that once captured the public's imagination, back when horse racing was considered far bigger than baseball, basketball or football.

So if we're talking about a blueprint for keeping horses in the game long enough to achieve the stature of a Secretariat or Seabiscuit, why not open up the Kentucky Derby and the Triple Crown's other jewels, the Preakness and the Belmont, to horses of all ages? In that scenario, 3-year-olds would be unlikely to win — or, in turn, retire to stud — against older horses, thus compelling their owners to extend their careers in order to score such a signature win at age 4 or 5, when thoroughbreds typically hit their racing prime.

And to celebrate horses whose talents lie at shorter distances or on grass (the Triple Crown races are all run on dirt, at distances of more than a mile), the sport could institute separate sprint and turf Triple Crowns, to be run at western tracks that have been shut out of thoroughbred racing's blue-blooded trifecta.

Tracks also could NASCAR-ize their "graded stakes" circuit — top-notch races that qualify a horse to compete in a Triple Crown or Breeders' Cup race — into the equivalent of a Sprint Cup or Busch series, thus bringing elite races to tracks previously deemed too humble to host them, and ensuring that fans around the country are exposed to the same big-game atmosphere that makes the Kentucky Derby so exhilarating.

The last of these suggestions actually has been attempted before, more or less: From 1991 to 1993, a slew of tracks — including Hollywood, Santa Anita and Del Mar — collaborated to stage the American Championship Racing Series.

"It was really good," Beyer says of the ACRS. "But industry dysfunction and the inability to coordinate and agree on what the schedule was going to be just sort of sunk it."

Beyer would "love to see a series of races for older horses to keep them racing" but doesn't feel that opening up the Triple Crown to thoroughbreds of all ages is the way to go.

"The strongest thing the sport has going for it is the success of the Triple Crown series and all the races leading up to it," he says. "The focus on 3-year-old races is something that goes back a couple of centuries. So the idea that we should take the most successful format in the sport and junk it and try something else is misguided."

Hovdey agrees, saying, "I don't think changing the Triple Crown would be anything more than rearranging a deck chair on the Titanic."

Enter Bill Barich, author of Laughing in the Hills, perhaps the greatest book ever written about day-to-day life at the racetrack (in Barich's case, Golden Gate Fields in Berkeley). A former California resident, Barich, who contributed to the ill-fated HBO horse-racing series Luck, now lives in Ireland, where the sport is flush and holds steadfast to its old-time traditions. And unlike Hovdey and Beyer, who may be too entrenched in the American version of the sport to think so fantastically, Barich likes the idea of shaking up the Triple Crown.

"The idea of trying to keep the top horses in the game — lifting the age restrictions — is worth considering," he says.

Neither Barich nor Beyer is fond of "racinos" — thoroughbred parlance for the sort of slot machine–aided operation that Hollywood Park's current owners claim they tried hard to establish in their efforts to save the track.

"For the most part, the tracks that have gotten slot money are the weak links, and slot money has propped up the weak at the expense of the strong," says Beyer, who blames racinos in Pennsylvania, Delaware and West Virginia for nearly decimating the once-thriving thoroughbred industry in Maryland, where such operations are illegal (Baltimore's Pimlico hosts the Preakness each year).

"The idea that we can revive the sport through the live experience is not realistic," Beyer says, referring to the introduction of slots and other gimmicks the sport has used to try to bolster live attendance over the years. He instead embraces computer gambling, saying, "If the industry really focused more of its energy and thought into developing the online betting product and the at-home product — facilitating off-track international betting pools and telephone betting, instead of having obstacles in so many states — in the computer age, there are a lot of creative things that can be done to make the product grow."

Yet Barich still believes passionately in the pull of a day at the races, to the point where he feels the sport has over-automated itself.

"I would institute on-course bookies," Barich says, when asked what sort of trappings he'd import from booming overseas racetrack cultures. "The bookies [in Ireland] are very colorful. Every bookie has different odds. It's great fun, and great value. At American tracks, they keep editing out the human. All the betting is with machines now. In the old days, everybody knew the clerks. There was a sense of community."

Barich also would class up the American racetrack experience considerably. "In Ireland, it's, like, $50 to get in; there's no cheap buy-in," he says. "And for some strange, human reason, people want to pop for that. It's an event."

He even cites a dog track in Dublin "where they have a waiting list to get into the equivalent of a Turf Club. The food is really good, they drink wine — they don't really give a fuck about the dogs. It's the totality of the experience. When people come to the racetrack, even if they lose money, they're going to walk away saying, 'I had a great day.' "

In times past, Hollywood Park's parking lot filled up so tight that owner Marje Everett herself occasionally had to direct cars into stalls. Much of the lot now serves as a drag strip where track employees enter and exit the backstretch — sprawling, barn-dotted grounds beyond the racetrack's perimeter, where horses and their handlers live — at full throttle, the rehabbed Forum gleaming in the background.

Hollywood Park sports one of the finest backstretches in California, counting among its tenants the hay-chewing charges of top trainers Bob Baffert and Doug O'Neill. But to the uninitiated, even the nicest backstretch can seem shrouded in squalor. As at any major track, many grooms live above the animals they care for; tiny, cinder-block apartments house this largely Latino cadre of horse whisperers, tasked with making sure the thoroughbreds are fit and fed. And the track office, where jockey agent Vince DeGregory is watching one of his novice clients try to eke out a money finish in a low-level claiming race, resembles the set of classic sitcom Barney Miller.

Lanky and sideburned, DeGregory's 80 but doesn't look or act it. The former agent for all-time Hollywood Park greats Angel Cordero and Pincay, he wears a gold chain around his neck and converses in a constant hustle. But when talk turns to Hollywood Park's bleak fortunes, he grows somber.

"Corporations buy and sell racetracks like they're toys," he says, his disdain for Churchill palpable (Churchill declined multiple requests to comment for this story). "People are going to be crucified as a result of this track closing. Where are they going to get a job after 40 years of working here?"

Lisa Mayer is one of those people. She used to exercise horses for legendary trainer Charlie Whittingham, for whom a grandstand pub at the track is named, and now toils part-time in a tack shop run by Western Saddlery. She and her husband, also a backstretch laborer, live 30 miles away, near Santa Anita, but Mayer has instead chosen to work at Hollywood Park despite the gnarly commute.

"This is a little paradise here," she says. "I remember when they had the [Rodney King] riots, I never felt safe until I got here, to Hollywood Park. There's not just horses back here. There's people, there's goats, there's geese, there's cats, there's every kind of finch. It's like waking up in the country. So many people live on the backstretch; a lot of families are going to be disrupted. It's not just a racetrack. It's a home."

As a jetliner looks poised to land on the grandstand's roof — LAX is but 3 miles away, and the planes come in low over Inglewood — Mayer makes known her opinion on Hollywood Park's redevelopment.

"What they want to do with the track is not conducive to the neighborhood or the times," she says. "If you're gonna spend $600,000 on a house, why would you do it in Inglewood?"

Mayer's no real estate expert, but Max Nelson of the L.A.-based brokerage Deasy/Penner & Partners is, and he shares her glum outlook about the relatively upscale, mixed-use vision for the land. "Frankly, I think it's a dangerous area," he says of much of Inglewood. "I do not think it's the most attractive residential destination. In addition to being in the flight path, there are other factors that impact that area negatively. You're basically going to have lower-income housing surrounding higher-income housing, and I do not think that's a good dynamic."

But the project's manager, McCallum, sings a predictably sunnier — and municipally ambiguous — tune: that Inglewood, which borders L.A.'s upscale Westside, is on the cusp of change.

"If you zoom outside of Inglewood and look at the entire area, it's central to thousands of jobs, it's in a housing market that's extremely constricted, and we can offer price points that are extremely attractive to the area at large," he says before reiterating, "you really have to look outside of Inglewood."

Gazing at the grandstand from the faraway backstretch, one could be forgiven for thinking the track was dark on Friday, Nov. 8, the second day of Hollywood Park's current and final season. Aside from the usual ground-floor ruckus, entire sections lay vacant, escalators are intentionally turned off and finding an open tap of beer proves as difficult as hitting the Pick Six. Yet what for some would be a depressing scene is for many a seasoned horseplayer a serene routine, the twice-hourly cycle of studying statistics, heading to the window and watching a race as reliably meditative and exhilarating as tai chi chased by a shot of Herradura.

But every once in a while, there's a conniption in the cosmos, such as occurred just before the sixth race at Hollywood on that desolate Friday afternoon. As the starters were being loaded into the gates, one horse, Ashley's Bambino, broke through prematurely, bucking his jockey and dragging a handler several feet before busting loose entirely (fortunately, no one was seriously hurt).

There are no rodeo clowns in thoroughbred racing, and attempting to lasso a horse on the loose would be terrifyingly inhumane. So all that the humans on the infield could do was get out of Ashley's Bambino's way.

After three lone laps around the turf course, the horse broke into the infield, circling a small lake before galloping wildly, as though he were alone on a prairie with no predetermined course. Nothing would proceed until he allowed it to. If only he could keep running, the end might never come.

Reach the writer at mdseely@gmail.com.

PHOTO BY RYAN ORANGE