If you have memories of a place that stretch over a lifetime — from when you were a kid there to when you brought your kids and then their kids — it's hard to go back and see it empty and unloved, the flowers unwatered and dead, dust coating the floors and the benches.

It all happened so quickly at Hollywood Park, where thoroughbreds last thundered down the track just a month ago. Now, with that day's racing slips still scattered about the stands, everything that can be removed is being sold off: the ticket booths, the Jumbotron, the jockeys' impossibly small, narrow bunk beds.

The 75-year-old Inglewood property was open Wednesday and Thursday to anyone wanting to preview the items in the two-day auction, which ends Saturday.

Special events planners and owners of racetracks and restaurants carried around clipboards to make notes on the big stuff: the floodlights, the tractors, the walk-in coolers, the cement mixer, the hot-walking machines used to cool down the horses.

PHOTOS: Hollywood Park auction

Fans and former employees were drawn to potentially affordable memorabilia: stacks of brightly colored saddle cloths, lawn jockeys from the winner's circle, bobbleheads of trainer Bob Baffert, framed photos of Seabiscuit, Citation and Bill Shoemaker on Swaps, DVDs by the boxful of Zenyatta and Lava Man.

They could touch the Toledo scale on which winning jockeys were weighed out. They also got one last chance to stand in the stands, stare at the track, maybe replaying a race.

Bright pink auction tags were everywhere, from ground level to the rooftop boxes, and the public was free to wander as never before — into the jockeys' locker rooms and sauna, the members-only Turf Club, the paddocks.

They could ride in a pink-tagged white van serving as a shuttle bus to the infield — and there find a last remaining pink flamingo and a pink-tagged swan boat in which the Goose Girls of yesteryear used to wave at the crowds from the infield lakes.

Sure, many people prefer the more vintage look of Santa Anita and Del Mar. But this spot south of L.A., especially dear to fans living nearby, was swanky in its day.

It was founded with the help of Hollywood moguls and stars. In the early years, you might go there and glimpse Claudette Colbert or Joan Crawford or Fred Astaire, who owned racehorses.

It was a place people used to dress up to visit, to eat steak at the Turf Club.

"It's heartbreaking. This was Zenyatta's home. This was the home of the champions. I never missed a Zenyatta race. I come here every Thanksgiving," said Sharon Liveten, 55, as she stood in the memorabilia room. "There are people who came here who wouldn't go to Santa Anita. They were locals. It was a neat kind of crowd."

The plans for the 238-acre site's future as Hollywood Park Tomorrow — a mixed-use development with homes, shops, movie theaters and a big hotel — don't sit well with Liveten and others who treasure the Hollywood Park of yesterday.

"It should have been a historical monument," said Charles Francis, 64, a retired tile-setter who first visited the track as a child and as a teenager worked as a groom and hot walker for trainer Charles Whittingham.

In the late 1970s, Francis' wife, Darlana, was out of work when she came to Hollywood Park with a friend, who fronted her the money to bet. She won $680.

"It meant a hell of a lot," she said Thursday as she walked past rows of empty betting windows.

Their friend Earl Warren Sr. said he liked to pop in and out some days when he was still working as a painter. "I would come here and bet, eat my chicken wings," he said. "I had a ball here, mm-hmmm. Yeah, I had a real nice time here."

Good memories are powerful. Nostalgia files away facts that don't fit.

Even though average attendance had fallen off a cliff in recent decades — dropping to below 4,000 last summer — and simulcasts and off-track betting kept many fans from making the trip, only a few of those who came this week to look and remember owned up to visiting less.

One who did was Stan Thornton, 62, of Inglewood, as he stepped into the winner's circle.

"I didn't come here on a regular basis … and I live literally straight across from here," he said, pointing out past the infield. "Sign of the times, you know. One goes and one comes."

Then he went, in search of the jockeys' rec room.

nita.lelyveld@latimes.com

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