Sports

Crowd catches the tail end of horse racing at historic Hollywood Park

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The bugler in his green coat and top hat tried to sound upbeat as he blew the traditional "Call to Post," but he might just as well have been playing a dirge.

Down by the rail, Todd Matzner listened with a cigar stub clamped between his teeth.

"I wasn't going to miss this, no way," the horse racing die-hard said. "Even if it's kind of sad."

Sunday marked the last gasp for Betfair Hollywood Park, a 75-year-old racetrack that had once been a sparkling jewel of the city.

The Inglewood landmark, which has fallen victim to declining revenue industrywide, will have its grandstand razed and its racing ovals dug up.

Shops, offices and residential units are planned for the spot where fans once cheered for horses such as Seabiscuit and Zenyatta, not to mention renowned jockeys Bill Shoemaker and Laffit Pincay Jr.

"The track's closure is a major loss," said Alex Waldrop, president and chief executive of the National Thoroughbred Racing Assn.

A crowd reminiscent of better times arrived for the final card of 11 races. Paid attendance reached 13,000, but with lines stretching into the parking lot, officials said they let significantly more people through the gates after 2 p.m.

Horses charging down the homestretch were greeted by loud cheers. There was a noticeable buzz among gamblers clutching their tip sheets, waiting to get at the betting windows.

"It takes closing up to draw 30,000?" said Terry Howard, who lives down the street and attends racing daily. "Where were all these people before?"

Hollywood Park opened in the summer of 1938, bankrolled by a large group of shareholders that — befitting the track's name — included Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, Walt Disney and Ronald Colman.

Seabiscuit won the inaugural Hollywood Gold Cup that year.

"The thing I remember most was getting up close to the winner's circle and seeing Cary Grant," veteran trainer Bob Baffert recalled. "That was a thrill."

World War II forced a long hiatus, and a 1949 fire shut down racing for another year. But the track was bound for better times.

The 1960s saw 34,000 people a day pushing through the turnstiles, that average growing in the years that followed.

Much of this success owed to the business acumen of Marje Everett, who sold her stake in several Midwestern tracks and moved west to become Hollywood Park's director and, later, chief executive.

A driving, if controversial, force in the industry, Everett believed in special promotions, once drawing more than 80,000 fans when she handed out tote bags. She also paid $200,000 of her own money to lure the Breeders' Cup — a premier event featuring several races — to Inglewood.

In the 1980s, big race days often drew crowds in excess of 50,000. Officials later added flamingos to the infield with its shimmering ponds and palm trees.

"It's historical," said Christy Jackson, who came to the last day in high heels, accompanied by her husband, Jason Bland. The Redondo Beach couple were studying the official program, trying to decide on their bets.

"It's the old Hollywood connection," Jackson said. "Just the nostalgia of it."

That sentiment drew all sorts of fans Sunday, including gentlemen in sports coats and fedoras, women in cowboy boots, and guys in nylon windbreakers.

"It's really fun to people-watch," said Maya Grunauer, 20, of Hermosa Beach. She and her 15-year-old brother, Julian, had never been to the races before.

"We had to come here at least once," Julian said.

When the video board showed photographs from past years and highlights from memorable races, a wistful sort of applause echoed across the grounds.

Some fans had seen the end coming for years as the increasing popularity of Internet betting and simulcast wagering whittled average attendance to less than 4,000 last summer.

The high cost of workers' compensation in California had forced some horse owners to move elsewhere, and it had become tougher to assemble high-quality fields.

Not surprisingly, Hollywood Park had changed hands numerous times. Everett lost control to R.D. Hubbard in a 1991 proxy battle. Hubbard sold to Churchill Downs in 1999, which sold to Bay Meadows Land Co. six years later.

After voters passed a series of 2008 propositions that gave Indian tribes a stronger hold on gambling in the state, Bay Meadows proceeded with plans to redevelop.

"Do we need more shopping centers?" Jackson asked. "This place is slightly run-down, but I think it should be preserved."

Everyone who came through the gates Sunday received a special pin. There were testimonials and prize giveaways.

Tracks throughout Southern California, including Los Alamitos and Del Mar, will absorb Hollywood Park's racing dates. Many regulars said they would make the drive to Santa Anita Park, in Arcadia, more often.

But for Matzner, a 57-year-old from Lincoln Heights who has loved racing since he was a teenager, it won't feel the same.

"This place has always been special," he said.

Nearby, the bugler finished summoning the horses with his traditional song, then let loose with another tune: "Thanks for the Memory."

david.wharton@latimes.com

Twitter:@LATimesWharton

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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