Horse Racing: The Iconic Hollywood Park Meets Its Bitter End

Apart from a catastrophic injury to equine or human, there is nothing that is more heartbreaking to me in the sport of Horse Racing than an equine racetrack, in any capacity, closing down. Such is the case with Hollywood Park in Inglewood, California that will be closing its doors for the final time this Sunday.

I don’t know, maybe since two racetrack closings were jammed down my throat at an early age, perhaps it hits me a little harder than the next person.

You see, I was born and raised on Long Island in New York and those two racetrack closings, albeit non thoroughbred tracks, still have a lasting effect on me. Anytime I return home, which is fairly often, it feels like someone punched me in the stomach every time I drive past either place.

Parr Meadows Quarter Horse Racetrack in Yaphank, which ran it’s races at night, first opened in 1977 but closed quickly following a 113 day meet for defaulting on bank loans. I never made it to the track during those 113 days but I was devastated when it closed anyway.

In May 1986, the track reopened under the name “Suffolk Downs”. I was elated…but, much to my chagrin, Suffolk Meadows lasted a shorter time that Parr Meadows as it too was shut down after just 86 days and filed for bankrupcy.The racetrack, which ever name you want to call it, ceased operations permanantly on October 18, 1986.

The far turn and the concrete from the parking lot is about all that's left of Parr/Suffolk Meadows

The far turn and the concrete from the parking lot is about all that’s left of Parr/Suffolk Meadows

Devastated and driven to find as much horse racing as humanly possible close to home, I turned my focus to Roosevelt Raceway in Westbury. Again it was Harness Racing and not Thoroughbreds that I fell in love with but still, on days off,  I remember going Belmont during the day and then to “Double R” at night and being somewhat satisfied with that. I thought Double R had been around since 1940 and I certainly didn’t think it was going anywhere.

I was there when horses like Ghenghis Khan and Skip By Night would win almost like clock work. Again, it wasn’t thoroughbred racing, but it sufficed.

However, little did I know that with the introduction of  Off Track Betting in New York in 1971, the attendance at Roosevelt Raceway (as all the state’s racetracks) began to decline. During it’s pinnacle (from 1940 to the late 1960’s) crowds numbered as high as 50,000 but gradually dipped to about 3,000 people by the mid-1980’s.

In the end, the combination of Roosevelt Raceway’s ticket sales being barely enough support its daily operating costs and the land value skyrocketing, (being right smackdab in the middle of Long Island surrounded by three major thoroughfares, which in turn made Roosevelt Raceway’s 65 acres a target for real estate developers) the track announced it was closing its doors for good and did so after Majestic Andrew won a $5,500 race on June 18, 1988. Not too long after, Roosevelt was demolished and redevelopmented into what is now known as the Roosevelt Mall

After Parr/Suffolk Meadows and Roosevelt Raceway closings the hits seems to keep right on coming as many other race tracks in the United States, including Maryland, New Jersey, Florida, Nebraska and California, saw huge racing venues close their doors for good:

Aksarben (1920 – 1995), Omaha, NE
Aksarben (Nebraska spelled backwards) was a complex that, in the mid-1980′s, was 10th in the nation in racetrack attendance. Triple Crown winner Omaha was buried at the track’s Circle of Champions following his death in 1959. When the track closed in 1995 it sat around, eerily empty, for 10 years before it was demolished in 2005

The land is currently being redeveloped for several things, including dormitory housing for the University of Nebraska-Omaha and the Aksarben Village (shopping) development.

 

Bay Meadows (1934-2008), San Mateo, CA

A fixture in Califorina racing for 70+ years, Bay Meadows introduced pari-mutuel wagering, the now wildly popular Daily Double Bet, the first all-enclosed starting gate, the digital tote board and the photo-finish camera.

It also was the place where probably the greatest jockey I ever saw, Bill Shoemaker, started his career while the great Seabiscuit, Silky Sullivan, Citation, John Henry and Round Table all ran there as well.

After the track failed to acquire a 2-year extension of the deadline to replace its dirt oval with an artificial surface for the safety of the horses from the California Horse Racing Board, it was announced that Bay Meadows intended to close November 4, 2006 and it did.

Construction began on housing and commercial development in September 2008

 

What used to be Bay Meadows is now being turned into a shopping mall

What used to be Bay Meadows is now being turned into a shopping mall

Bowie Race Track (1914 – 1985), Bowie, MD
Around for 71 years, this track was a major “winter home” for trainers who wanted to get their horses out of the cold north-east. However, competition from a nearby, state of the art new racing venue (Keystone Racetrack, which became Philadelphia Park and is now known as Parx Park) ultimately led to the demise of the Bowie and, once again, with a steady but sharp decline in attendance, Bowie ceased racing operations on July 14, 1985.

The track still stands and exists as a Thoroughbred training center.

 

Garden State Park (1942 – 2001), Delaware Township, NJ
Garden State was a hugely popular racing facility and reached it’s peak in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Horses that competed there included Whirlaway, Citation and Secretariat. With Atlantic City Race Course and MonmouthPark, it part of a major three headed New Jersey racing monster called the “Golden Triangle” of New Jersey racing.

The original grandstand was destroyed by fire in 1977 and GardenState laid dormant until it was rebuilt and reopened in 1985. The track came back but the fans didn’t and it was forced to close its doors on May 3, 2001 with barely over 2,000 fans there on the final day.

Garden State Park’s 600 acres are now home to stores, restaurants, apartments, townhouses, and condominiums.

 

Hialeah Park (1921 – 2001), Hialeah, FL
Not sure this belongs on the list as it’s in the midst of nothing short of a spectacular comeback.

In 2001, HialeahPark stopped live racing after a change in the state law kept it from having exclusive dates against its competition with GulfstreamPark and Calder Race Course. Consequently, owner John Brunetti closed HialeahPark to the public after Cheeky Miss won the last race run there on May 22, 2001. The track was dormant for several years and, because of inactivity, its racing license was revoked by the state of Florida.

However in March 2009, it was announced that track owner John Brunetti applied for and was awarded a racing permit.

HialeahPark now hosts Quarter Horse Racing and will soon have slot machines installed on the new wing they are building on the south side. Your truly was there several month ago and I must say, it’s starting to look like the Hialeah of old.

That is the same Hialeah that was “THE place to be” in years past when Frank Sinatra and Queen Elizabeth were in attendance and when the track hosted the aptly named Flamingo Stakes. (The Flamingos still hang around the infield before one of the groundskeepers spooks them into flight around the 6th race or so) Past winners include Citation, Nashua, Bold Ruler, Northern Dancer, Buckpasser, Foolish Pleasure, Seattle Slew, Alydar, and Spectacular Bid

Hialeah hit me the hardest but with the strides its making, that could have a happy ending. However, the same can not be true for Hollywood Park.

The history is long and deep for the track of “Lakes and Flowers” and I must say, this closing really bothers me. I mean, with it’s list of accomplishments and history, ( I listed several below) how does this happen to such a landmark establishment?

Hollywood Turf Club, as it was called back then, opened in June 10, 1938. The racetrack was designed by architect Arthur Froehlich and it’s Board of Directors included Harry and Jack Warner of Warner Brothers, Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, Ralph Bellamy with Mervyn LeRoy as the general manager from 1941 until his death in 1987.

Hollywood Turf Club was an immediate success with a little help from the legendary Seabiscuit, who won the inaugural (1938) running of the Hollywood Gold Cup, the track’s signature race. All told the Hollywood Gold Cup would be won by 11horses that went on to win Horse Racing’s highest honor, Horse of the Year. (1938, Seabiscuit; 1940, Challedon; 1951, Citation; 1956, Swaps; 1957, Round Table; 1971, Ack Ack; 1979, Affirmed; 1987, Ferdinand; 1990, Criminal Type; 1995, Cigar; 1998, Skip Away).

In 1951, the great Citation, who won the 1948 Triple Crown, became Horse Racing’s first millionaire when he won the Hollywood Gold Cup.

A triple dead heat for win at HollywoodPark occurred on July 3, 1957, when $5,000 claimers Joe’s Pleasure (George Taniguchi), Challenger Tom (Bill Shoemaker) and Leaful (William Harmatz) could not be separated.

In 1958, the great Swaps set four world records and tied another at the track with three of those efforts toting 130 pounds.

In 1965, Hollywood’s average attendance was ranked #1 in the country with an eye popping 34,000 people showing up on a daily basis. (Just as an FYI, nowadays, HollywoodPark averages about 6,000-8,000 people daily).

Also in the mid-1960’s California-bred, fan favorite and speed demon Native Diver, who never seemed to tire, dazzled crowds with a then-unprecedented three straight Gold Cup wins.

In 1971, Hollwood introduced the now enormously popular Exacta bet, one yours truly uses quite frequently….without much success might I add. That same year, the track was the first to break the $4 million daily handle barrier and later the amount became the average handle as well.

In 1974, a monumental east vs. west match race between that years two top fillies took place at HollywoodPark. Eastern star and Filly Triple Crown winner Chris Evert, ridden by Jorge Velasquez, took on western standout Miss Musket, with Laffit Pincay Jr.

Each owner put up $100,000 and track added $150,000 for total (record purse) of $350,000. Chris Evert, the second choice, embarrassed Miss Musket while winning by (no exaggeration) 50 lengths while getting 1 1/4 miles distance in 2:02.

Perhaps the biggest upset in the history of HollywoodPark occurred on On July 3, 1977 when unbeaten Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew finished fourth in the Swaps Stakes to J.O. Tobin in a race Slew never should have run in.

In 1979, Affirmed, who won the 1978 Triple Crown after fierce battles with the ill fated Alydar, became racing’s first horse to amass $2-million in purses when he won the 1979 Hollywood Gold Cup under jockey Laffit Pincay Jr.

In 1980, Hollywood Park set a then record of 80,348 with a tote bag giveaway.

Also in 1980 (June 7), Hollywood introduces the Pick Six (pick the winners of 6 consecutive races for a monster payoff), yet another colossally popular bet that racetrack across the country still use all the time. This helped HollywoodPark move from $4 million a day handle to $5 million.

Perhaps the fastest filly I’ve ever seen run live, Landaluce make a mockery of her peers in a pair of races at Hollywood Park in 1982…she won her racing debut there by 7 ½ lengths and then absolutely pulverized the field in her next race there (The Hollywood Lassie Stakes) when she won by an astounding 21 lengths while getting six furlongs in 1:08.1.

In 1983, seven-time Eclipse Award winner John Henry became the first horse to surpass $4 million in career earnings with a win in the 1983 Hollywood Turf Cup under jockey Chris McCarron.

Also in 1983, HollywoodPark ran the first $1 million race for two year olds in the history of the sport. The 1983 Hollywood Futurity, which actually carried a purse of $1,049,725 by post-time, was won by Fali Time.

Things really began to heat up for HollywoodPark when they were elected to host the inaugural (1984) Breeders Cup series. In fact, on November 4, 1984 Hollywood had to make some radical changes including incorporating a 1,321-foot home stretch with extended chute to permit one-mile races around one turn so all the BC races would be able to be run.

Before a crowd of 64,625 and an estimated 50 million viewers, Hollywood Park was host the first of three Breeders’ Cup days on Nov. 7, 1984, handling a then-record $11,466,941.

Just three years later, HollywoodPark became the first track to host a second Breeders’ Cup, setting a handle record of $14,352,515 on Nov. 21, 1987.

Tejano won the 1987 Hollywood Futurity to become racing’s first juvenile millionaire.

In February of 1991, R.D. Hubbard gained control of HollywoodPark, made a few adjustments and attendance increased 11.3% and handle rose 7.3%.

The $1 Superfecta, (picking the first four finishers in order) another bet yours truly frequents, once again without much success, was introduced before the 1993 Spring/Summer Meet.

The $20-million Hollywood Park-Casino was opened on Friday, July 1, 1994.The state-of-the-art card club/casino features several games and poker. It became an inter-track hit with simulcasts from within the State, throughout the U.S., and from as far away as Hong Kong.

Yet another milestone was achieved when the public bet $377,880 to win and $524,348 across the board on Cigar in the 1995 Hollywood Gold Cup. The two-time Horse of the Year did not disappoint and won the race by 3 1/2 lengths to return $3.80.

Laffit Pincay Jr. reached racing’s summit at Hollywood Park on Dec. 10, 1999, riding Irish Nip to victory in the sixth race. It was career win No. 8,834, one more than Bill Shoemaker, who retired with 8,883 wins in 1990.

Churchill Downs Incorporated closed a $140-million deal to acquire HollywoodPark on Sept. 10, 1999. The deal included the Hollywood Park-Casino, which was leased back to Hollywood Park Inc. I believe this transaction was the beginning of the end for the iconic track.

Churchill Downs Inc. then spun around and sold the track to Bay Meadows Land Company on July 6, 2005 for $257.5 million and in the process, turning a $117.5 million profit in less than six years.

After the deal was closed and announced we all knew the end was coming. Personally I didn’t want to believe it, but deep down, I knew it was coming. I mean Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles saw it coming with Bay Meadows Land Company being a “land development company”.

Cushion (synthetic) Track was installed following the 2006 Spring/Summer Meet, and opened for training on Sept. 13, 2006 at a cost of more than $8 million.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the great Zenyatta in this article either. She was the queen of Hollywood for three straight years and called it home as well.

Zenyatta won the Vanity for an unprecedented third time and was voted Horse of the Meet for a third consecutive year in 2010. The Vanity victory over a courageous St. Trinians, in probably one of the top five races I’ve ever witnessed, was the 17th in a row for the brilliant mare, who was ultimately honored as Horse of the Year. To this day, I’m not sure how the mighty “Z” won. She was a beaten horse with less than 100 yards to go.

By 2012, average attendance had plummeted from 35,000 in the mid-60s to an average of 4,755 for the spring/summer meet and to a mere 3,189 in the autumn even with the announcement of a merger (sort of speak) between  Hollywood Park and Betfair US, the Los Angeles based subsidiary of Betfair Group that also owns Television Games Network.

The historic agreement, made official on March 13, 2012, was intended to transform the customer experience for fans at the venue as well as online and on television. Under terms of the five year deal, HollywoodPark was renamed “Betfair Hollywood Park”

To their credit, Hollywood’s various management teams (Marje Everett in the ’80s, R.D. Hubbard in the ’90s, Churchill Downs Inc., and then Bay Meadows Land Co. in the new millennium) tried just about everything to stave off the inevitable. They innovated, renovated, added, and subtracted racing days, instituted night racing, introduced ever-more exotic wagering forms, expanded the track, then synthesized it, built a casino, gave away things, held concerts, and threw parties but fewer fans showed up with each passing year.

Finally, on May 9, 2012, Hollywood Park President Jack Liebau, threw in the proverbial towel and said: “From an economic point of view, the land now simply has a higher and better use, so, unfortunately, racing will not continue here once the autumn meet is completed.”

The California Horse Racing Board was notified by the track’s owners that it will not seek racing dates in 2014 and will close the stable area at the end of this year.

“Ownership has been upfront from the beginning that the property would eventually be developed unless there were significant changes in the horse racing business,’’ said Jack Liebau. “Despite the Hollywood Park Land Company financially supporting two statewide initiatives with varying degrees of support from other segments of the racing industry, the attempts to upgrade the business model were not successful”.

So exactly what is a “higher and better use” you may ask? (Well, I did at least). The answer is on the 238 acre plot there will be the following: The Hollywood Park Casino, an enormous shopping center, a 300-room hotel, office space, parks, 2,995 residences (mostly single-family houses and townhouses), two lakes and several new streets.

Liebau said the stable area will closed by the end of this year and that all of the some 1,200 horses will be off the grounds by then so “construction can start almost immediately after the first of the year.”….Thanks Mr. Liebau but…please…don’t rub it in and thanks to you Hollywood Park for 75 years of some of the best racing in the history of mankind….you will be sorely missed.

Thanks for Reading…

  • beyers

    Thank you for writing the memories. I enjoyed the history.

    • mark

      You shouldnt have fixed so many races and maybe you would still be racing. One of the most crooked tracks.

      • Mo

        Your an idiot

  • Robert Beretta Jr.

    Great artical. Did you ever go to Narraganset Park or Lincoln Downs in RI?

  • http://isportsweb.com/members/apadula/ Gerard Apadula

    Robert…thank you….and No I have not

    Beyers….youre more than welcome….thank you for reading

    Mark….?????

  • Chantal Smithless

    Great article, although one that made my heart heavier than it already was. And thanks for including the videos of Landaluce and The Queen, Zenyatta. If I was able to, I am not sure I could attend racing on Sunday, Dec. 22nd. It would just be TOO hard to walk out of those gates for the final time………….

    • http://isportsweb.com/members/apadula/ Gerard Apadula

      Thanks Chantal…and I agree, If I lived in Cali I’m not sure I would be able to go on Sunday either

  • MrKnowItAll58

    If and when the Horse Racing Industry decides it has a problem that can and should be fixed, will the support come back. Until then the fans will stop coming, cause NO ONE wants to see the “curtain of death” rolled out! Arrogance, ignorance, and tradition will bring the extinction of a historical sport. For a few cents per day, per horse the skeletal system could be made to endure all the stupidity the Industry can offer!

  • Bill Hines

    I know what you mean about the trauma attendant to closing the track of the “LAKES (not “land”) AND FLOWERS” SO MANY MEMORIES! THANKS…..I HATED IT WHEN THEY KILLED THE GOOSE GIRL!….

    • http://isportsweb.com/members/apadula/ Gerard Apadula

      Thanks Bill….I’ll make that correction…I hated when they killed her too !

  • billie shears

    One point you missed. Trainer Vienna and Summers, represenbting the horsemen, were asked BY Marje Everett if they wanted to share in REVENUE from the under construction casino. They replied; No1

    • http://isportsweb.com/members/apadula/ Gerard Apadula

      Thanks Billie…

  • Dee P.

    One of the main reasons that people failed to come out to Hollywood, was the declining environment around the track. It was rampant with gangs, and became an unsafe place to be at almost any hour of the day or night. I can’t imagine building luxurious homes and a shopping mall there, until they do something about the unsavory crowd that hangs out (not at the track, as much as outside it). I wouldn’t ever want to buy there.

    • http://isportsweb.com/members/apadula/ Gerard Apadula

      I’ve heard that too Dee….I’ve never been there so I didnt want to write that without seeing it first hand. Thanks for the rely

  • lovesabq

    The last race at Bay Meadows was in August 2008.