This weekend marks the final run for Hollywood Park – oops, Betfair Hollywood Park – the original Track of Lakes and Flowers in Inglewood, Calif. It’s not the first racetrack to die, and it won’t be the last, but it is certainly one of the most significant tracks to fade away into the sunset.
I can count on one hand the trips I’ve made to Hollywood Park, but what wonderful experiences they were! Please indulge me with a little trip down memory lane.
Sunday, July 17, 1977, was the first time I had ever been to any racetrack. I had fallen in love with Thoroughbred racing four years earlier with the televised exploits of Secretariat, but it wasn’t until my father took me to Hollywood Park as a young teenager that I saw live racing for the first time. The feature that day was the Citation H., and favored was Ancient Title, the formidable California-bred future Hall of Fame member. Also in the field was the highly regarded Pay Tribute, an Elmendorf Farm runner who counted the Hollywood Gold Cup among his victories. But they were both upstaged by Painted Wagon, another Cal-bred, who stormed to victory.
Looking back at the program (yes, I still have it), I see the name Equanimity in a maiden race for two-year-old fillies. She finished fifth in her first start that day, but would go on to be a Grade 1 winner. Who knew?
I didn’t return to Hollywood until the inaugural Breeders’ Cup in 1984. I was a grad student at the University of Arizona at the time, participating in the Race Track Industry Program. Some friends and I journeyed to Hollywood Park to be part of the exciting new event. We never set foot on the frontside though – having trainer friends, we hung out in the stable area for three days and watched races from the backside.
There were some great horses assembled for that first Breeders’ Cup, but the highlight for me would be the victory by a gray filly in a minor stakes race the night before. Two-year-old Lady’s Secret won the Moccasin S. for her second stakes win; of course we all know the great racehorse she became. On Breeders’ Cup day, two more Secretariat two-year-old fillies made the starting gate for the Juvenile Fillies, G1 winner Fiesta Lady and Fine Spirit, a future stakes winner who would finish third in the race. As a side note, I may be the only photographer in the world who has photographed all nine of Secretariat’s unrestricted Grade/Group 1 winners. I went to Australia to get one of them, and found the English winner at stud in Florida. But I digress.
A return trip to Hollywood Park for the Breeders’ Cup came in 1997, this time as a member of the photo team for the Thoroughbred Times. On a glorious day, Skip Away carried the red and gold silks of his owners past the red and gold flowers lining the inside rail to an impressive victory in the Classic. And who can forget Favorite Trick, the two-year-old colt who remained unbeaten through eight starts in the Juvenile to nail a Horse of the Year title? Eight starts for a classy two-year-old? Unheard of these days.
My last visit to Hollywood Park was the most amazing one – for Zenyatta’s final retirement party in late 2010. The incredible mare inspired legions of fans, some of whom really defined the word fanatic. One last morning, Zenyatta galloped around the training track in splendid isolation, only to soon be surrounded by an endless stream of visitors back at the barn. That afternoon, she pranced into the paddock for her final public farewell, as fans lined the walking ring and cheered her on. Then it was out to the racetrack amidst more cheering and applause, a long ceremony and the inevitable walk back to the barn. The experience was uplifting and emotional, with hardly a dry eye in the place as the video monitors followed her last walk up the stretch.
There will no shortage of tears at Hollywood Park this Sunday, I’m sure, for the final day of racing at the grand facility.