Commentary

Thanks for the memories

Closing Hollywood Park brought curtain down on a great cast of characters

Updated: January 2, 2014, 1:09 AM ET
By Mark Saxon | ESPNLosAngeles.com

INGLEWOOD, Calif. -- It's been more than a week since the bugler in black boots, a green sports coat and a khaki top hat walked out to the track, right next to the winner's circle, and played, "Thanks for the Memories." Then he called the horses to the post for the first race.

A few hours later, memories were all that we had of the place.

Hollywood Park, one of the country's most glamorous tracks, a place founded as a refuge from intolerance, bid goodbye to live racing. Hooves will never thunder down that famous stretch again, at least not in the sunshine of Southern California afternoon with a packed grandstand amid the dim roar of jumbo jets overhead.

Soon, the fading grandstand, the dated turf club and all the rest will be razed, the track torn up, the final flamingoes transplanted, and the construction crews will come in with their heavy machinery to turn it all into stores, green space and homes. It's not a particularly nefarious plot, just the way American capitalism works.

It's progress, if you want to call it that.

[+] EnlargeBetfair Hollywood Park
AP Photo/Jae C. HongThe last race at Hollywood Park brought a close to a 75-year run at one of the sport's iconic locations.

What's left behind are the ghosts of the great athletes, both two-legged and four, who nervously pranced about the paddock before plying their trade, and of the glamorous crowds and the unwashed masses whose hearts beat rapidly as they gripped hard to their tickets.

Vic Stauffer was the one who used that word, "ghosts." What they really are, of course, is memories and those can't be trusted, though they can certainly be cherished. Stauffer's memories of Hollywood go back 44 years, to the day he jumped in his grandfather's sedan bound for an afternoon of fun and family bonding. He was 10 years old and he was excited. He just didn't know where they were headed.

He saw the Forum, so he figured they were going to see the Lakers. His heart began to race, but his grandfather kept driving.

"I got a glimpse of the grandstand and I went, 'Wow, this is the place we get to go?'" Stauffer recalled. "After that, we would come here on Wednesdays or Thursdays, so we didn't have to fight the crowds and we had a chance to get a decent seat. Forget Saturday or Sunday.

"What a bygone era that was."

Thirty years later, Stauffer became the track announcer at Hollywood. Now, after becoming the third-longest tenured announcer in the track's history, his phrases, "They're off," "Yes!" and "Straight and strong," will no longer be heard echoing throughout the neighborhood over the public address system. Stauffer is in the process of sending tapes to tracks around the country trying to latch onto another announcing gig. Like Storm Davis, he said, he'll play wherever they want him.

Many of the people who made a living around Hollywood Park -- the jockeys, trainers, groomsmen, security guards and ticket takers -- will continue to travel the Southern California circuit. They'll visit Santa Anita, Del Mar and, now, Los Alamitos. Some of them will work the county fares. Others will work next door, at the casino, which will continue to do business.

But none of it's quite the same, not anymore.

"I'm going to miss the guys," said Pat Courmier, who -- dressed in his khaki security outfit -- has been standing sentinel outside the jockeys' room for the last eight years. As the sign says, jockeys and racing officials are the only people allowed in the dressing room.

"That's the best part, being around these guys," Courmier said. "They keep your mind young, the way they carry on and the pranks they pull. It's hilarious. It's like it's not even a job."

The rules weren't always so strict. Joe Steiner began riding at Hollywood in 1981 and his most lasting memory from back then is of an agitated trainer bursting into the jockeys' room and begging somebody to ride his horse. Jockeys tend to be detailed handicappers and the rest of the jocks in the room that day tried not to make eye contact, but Steiner felt bad for the guy. He had a mount in that particular race, but promised the guy he'd ride his horse the next time out.

It won and paid $56 to win.

"I came back to the jockeys' room and said, 'Hah!' to all those guys," Steiner said.

"I miss the days when there were a lot of people," Steiner said. "It has gotten sad that nobody goes to the races anymore."

Closing day, Dec. 22, was a nice goodbye to the place, a beautiful afternoon. More than 13,000 fans crowded into the old joint. In fact, by 2 p.m., crowds to get in were so long that officials just opened the gates and allowed people to come in for free. It was the biggest crowd since Zenyatta, the great champion filly, last came sprinting down to the wire here.

In recent years, Russ Hudak watched from his birds' eye perch as the crowds thinned out. The morning line maker and official clocker at Hollywood, his office was a plywood box on the roof, a stone's throw from Stauffer's box. As he takes a visitor up the rickety metal stairs to his office, he cautions, "It ain't the Ritz."

He had his pick and opted to move down the freeway to Los Alamitos, but it won't be the same.

"I'm just so into my routine," Hudak said. "I really think the entire Southern California circuit will be thrown out of sync. The change of race track and surface for all the horses presented a better gambling opportunity for everybody and, I think, a better circuit for everybody."

Hudak looks out over the track, with its sea gulls and shrubs and an odds board that goes slightly haywire on the right side and says, "I hope they do well here for the people of Inglewood."

Hollywood Park opened its doors on June 10, 1938, after a push by film industry bi wigs Jack L. Warner and Sam Goldwyn. According to author Neal Gabler, many of the founders were Hollywood Jews who had felt the cold shoulder at Santa Anita, another beautiful track 20 miles east and flanked by the San Gabriel Mountains. Hollywood became an instant magnet for celebrities. Al Jolson, Walt Disney, Bing Crosby, Elizabeth Taylor, Lucille Ball and Michael Jackson all visited over the years.

The year Hollywood opened, Seabiscuit won the Hollywood Gold Cup. In 1951, Citation became the country's first million-dollar horse after winning the same race.

In 2010, Zenyatta drew 26,000 people. This fall, the track was getting crowds that rarely exceeded 3,000. It's an industrywide trend, but most race tracks don't sit on prime real estate fronted by one of the busiest airports on the planet and served by two of the widest freeways in the country. In 2012, there were 45,000 racetracks in the U.S., about half as many as there were in 1989. It is, essentially, a dying sport.

What we'll miss are the characters.

I had a great uncle named Hyman. They called him "Red." He moved from St. Louis to Los Angeles in the 1930s in large part to play the ponies and avoid working. Red would commute from Boyle Heights almost daily to Hollywood or Santa Anita, sometimes without placing a single wager. He read the daily racing form obsessively, but he would sometimes wait six months for a horse to be entered in the right spot. He had racing forms piled two feet deep along the walls of his apartment. When my brother, Ed, visited him in the early 1980s, he was still talking about the day in 1947 when he had to attend a family gathering and got to the race track too late.

His horse came in, one of his biggest scores dashed. Most gamblers have a story like that.

The last time Zenyatta raced here, Jim Reese had a color print of the beautiful bay filly blown up to poster size. He did the same thing on Hollywood Park's final day of racing. On one side was a color print of a photo finish, on the other was a vintage black-and-white shot, circa 1938. People stopped Reese frequently to see where they could buy a poster like that, but they weren't for sale. He just wanted to be part of the scene.

Pat Morris likes being part of the scene, too. The trainers, owners and handicappers who walk by her in the paddock area just call her Pat "The Hat," because of her vast array of headwear. On closing day, the 76-year old was resplendent in all black, including a black silk hat with a bow.

She fell in love with horse racing in her native Canada, and carried it with her to Hollywood. She owns "a tail," as she calls it, or 5 percent, of a 2-year old thoroughbred who is supposed to begin racing in the spring.

She was wearing black for mourning on closing day.

"I've just been wandering around the barns and paddock looking around and saying, 'Goodbye,'" Morris said. "It's such a shame we're losing this place."

Mark Saxon

ESPNLosAngeles.com
Mark Saxon is a staff writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. He spent six years at the Orange County Register, and began his career at the Oakland Tribune, where he started an 11-year journey covering Major League Baseball. He has also covered colleges, including USC football and UCLA basketball.

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