Photo: Andrew Champagne
When one enters Betfair Hollywood Park, as I did for the first, last, and only time Sunday afternoon, one of the first things seen is the outside of the grandstand, where monuments to past Hollywood Gold Cup winners and their connections hang as tributes to some of the best thoroughbreds to ever run in Inglewood.
Lava Man, one of the great stories in recent racing history, won three consecutive Gold Cups from 2006 to 2008, but you wouldn't know it by quickly looking at his signs at Hollywood Park. The signs brandishing his name and silks are obstructed by a black substance, and instead of educating new fans about a California legend, those signs act as the biggest example of the cruel fate that's befallen Hollywood Park.
Hollywood Park should be a cathedral of American horse racing. Most great horses of the past 75 years that spent any time in California ran in Inglewood at one time or another, from Seabiscuit and Citation to recent Gold Cup winners like Lava Man and Game On Dude. The first-ever Breeders' Cup was held there in 1984, followed by subsequent renewals in 1987 and 1997. Even this year, the track saw the emotional return of Paynter and two romps by Shared Belief, who may wind up winning the Eclipse Award for champion 2-year-old male.
Instead, once the doors close after racing this coming Sunday, Hollywood Park will meet the bulldozer. Many saw this coming after the track was sold to a land development company several years ago. The land will, naturally, be redeveloped into something more lucrative, because apparently Southern California doesn't have enough shopping malls and hotels.
The effects of Hollywood Park's closure are far-reaching. Long-serving employees are out of jobs, and the horses stabled in Inglewood will need to be moved elsewhere by the end of January. Los Alamitos has built stable space for 500 thoroughbreds as part of an admirable effort to expand its facilities, but who's to say that's going to be enough?
Furthermore, what happens to horses that have done their best running over Hollywood Park's cushion track? It's a unique surface, one that's not replicated by the main tracks at Santa Anita, Del Mar, or Los Alamitos. If those horses don't have breeding value and can't replicate their Hollywood Park form elsewhere, I shudder to think what their futures hold.
The pursuit of the almighty dollar has dealt several blows to racing of late. Hollywood Park will be the second Golden State track to close in six years, joining Bay Meadows, which closed its doors in 2008. Meanwhile, back east where I grew up, NYRA is dealing with blowback from the rollout of its increase in admission prices, which was even more flawed than the price increase itself.
Our game is under attack. For too long, horse racing has been its own worst enemy, with victories few and far between and defeats coming from all angles in many shapes and sizes. In tearing down Hollywood Park and raising admission prices at Belmont and Saratoga, those in charge of building this great game are giving people reasons to stay away from the track. As fans of horse racing, we have a collective responsibility to push for what's best for the game, and to push those in charge to make sound decisions in that regard.
Maybe Hollywood Park has aged in a not-so-graceful fashion, as evidenced by the small crowd on a beautiful Sunday afternoon this past weekend. The crowd consisted less of families (though there were some) and more of hardened bettors crushing cigarettes inside the building and yelling at small, outdated TV's showing races from Golden Gate and Woodbine. There was ample space by the paddock to watch the horses parade and be saddled, and when I snapped a picture of multiple stakes-winner Teddy's Promise, who proceeded to record her sixth win in 12 starts on the cushion track moments later, mine became one of just a few cell phone cameras I saw between my arrival and my departure.
Still, Hollywood Park deserved a much better ending, as did the people who devoted years of service to its horses, trainers, and patrons. Instead, it's getting torn down after 75 years of high-quality racing. That track and this game both deserved better, and it's up to us to make sure that it doesn't become a trend.