Star Track : It’s Hooray for Horses as the Glitterati Gather for Breeders’ Cup Day at Aptly Named Hollywood Park

Times Staff Writer

Howard W. Koch, the movie producer-director, remembers well the day his father took him to Hollywood Park, when it first opened nearly half a century ago, and how some of the people in the stands attracted almost as much attention as the horses on the track.

“Betty Grable, Bing Crosby, Louis B. Mayer--you could see a celebrity just about every time you looked up into one of the boxes,” he said.

Fast forward to today, same location.

Although many of them will gather in louvered privacy in the Directors’ Room, once more the big names of show biz will be just about everywhere on the premises, as the track again proves it was aptly named.


Fourth Running

The occasion is the fourth running of the Breeders’ Cup--America’s day at the races--when some of the best horses from around the world will compete in seven races worth a total of $10 million in purse money. This Super Saturday doesn’t come to Southern California every year, so tens of thousands of patrons will be there beginning at 11 a.m., and millions more nationwide will watch for four hours on NBC.

Today is when the champions get crowned and the stars come out--if today is typical of times past.

When the Breeders’ Cup debuted at Hollywood Park in 1984, chief executive officer Marjorie L. Everett was hostess to the likes of Fred Astaire, Burt Bacharach and wife Carole Bayer Sager, Gregory Peck, Linda Evans.

And consider Friday night’s Breeders’ Cup Gala Ball at the Beverly Hilton:

The co-chairmen were John Forsythe and Barbara Grant, wife of the late actor Cary, a former director of the track. The event committee included Linda Evans, Walter Matthau, Aaron Spelling and Robert Wagner.

Other contemporaries frequently involved with the racing scene are David Cassidy of television’s “The Partridge Family,” who also has gotten into the breeding part of the sport. An occasional track visitor is Philip McKeon, who played Alice’s son on the TV series “Alice.”

Inasmuch as she has been dating jockey Laffit Pincay Jr., actress Phyllis Davis (of “Vegas,” among others) has become a familiar face among the horse crowd. And the show-biz and sports family of Dick Van Patten, including sons Jimmy, Nels and Vince (tennis), often make the racing scene.


It has always been thus at Hollywood.

Old-time photos show Edward G. Robinson sharing a program with Cary Grant, June Allyson looking up from her Daily Racing Form. Over the years, the winner’s circle has been occupied by such personalities as Greer Garson, Janet Leigh, Kirk Douglas, Betty Grable, Natalie Wood, Ann Rutherford, Lawrence Welk, Rosalind Russell, Alfred Hitchcock.

Some stars show up as horse owners, some to bet a few bucks, some simply as guests to see and be seen.

In the past, the Turf Club and Directors’ Room have had on hand Lana Turner, Jimmy Stewart, Jack Lemmon, Dorothy Provine, Walt Disney, Mervyn LeRoy (longtime track president), Don Adams, Mary Martin, Joan Blondell, George Peppard, Casey Stengel, Mickey Rooney, Ronald Colman, Tim Conway, Milton Berle, Vic Tayback, Lorne Greene, Tony Curtis, Desi Arnaz, Don Ameche, Quinn Martin.

One need only peruse past yearbooks and press accounts to wake up the echoes at the track, through whose entrances have passed such as Marlene Dietrich, Constance Bennett, Dick Powell, Deanna Durbin, Cyd Charisse, Flo Chadwick, Jimmy Durante, Rhonda Fleming, Hedy Lamarr, Al Jolson, Irene Dunne, Barbara Stanwyck, George Jessel.

Country Roads Farm Owners

Why this attraction of people in the limelight to the world of pounding hoofs?

“As far as owning horses, there are two answers,” Bacharach said. He and his wife own the Country Roads Farm in Maryland, where they keep brood mares.

“For those who don’t have all the fame they want, if they get a good horse, they often get mentioned whenever the horse does.


“On the other hand, you have this attraction: A lot of the people are accustomed to controlling things. Here is a situation they want to control, but can’t.

“Being an owner teaches lessons about life. You are taught you have to wait for certain things.”

Former child star Jackie Cooper, now 65, has been a longtime racing devotee and had a theory on why so many of the famous are drawn to the sport.

Pausing from directing an episode of “Cagney and Lacey,” the Oscar nominee of 1931 said: “No matter where you go at the track, nobody gives a damn who you are. A celebrity can be relaxed, he knows he can go in peace. You hardly ever see one being asked for an autograph.”

The Conway Theory

Comedian Tim Conway had still another theory: “Horse racing gives celebrities an opportunity to spend the inheritance before the kids grow up.”

Besides the Bacharach-Sagers, more than a few in the entertainment world have tried the dicey world of owning thoroughbreds--and some have rolled a seven.


Astaire once won the Hollywood Gold Cup with a horse named Triplicate. Among the many in Mayer’s stable was King Torch, which won the Sunset Handicap. Bing Crosby and trainer Lin Howard were partners in the Binglin Stable, whose Etoha II won the first Vanity Handicap.

More recently, there was Telly’s Pop, who went on to win $355,000--and few investors ever got a better return:

“I was recuperating at home from an operation,” movie director Koch recalled. “Mel Stute, the trainer, called and asked if I wanted to spend $6,000 for a yearling of his.

“Telly Savalas was at my house at the time and became interested. But I told him I had always been partners with Walter Matthau. I called Walter at home, and his response was that he didn’t need another horse.

“After we finished talking, I told Telly: ‘You’re a partner.’ He wrote me a check for $3,000 and headed to Europe to do a picture.

“I went down to a ranch to see the horse, the trainer there said he was a fractious colt that should be gelded, so I told him to go ahead. It was the mistake of my life.”


The colt hadn’t yet been named. Koch started writing some possibilities on a piece of paper. “Kojak,” starring Savalas, was a hot TV show at the time, so one of the names was Telly’s Lollipop, after a trademark of the TV detective.

“I didn’t quite like that name, so I crossed out the ‘Lolli,’ and that’s how the final name came about. A while later, I read an article that said the horse had been named after Telly’s father.”

Actor Jack Klugman is another owner--and a breeder as well. One of his best was Jaklin Klugman, a colt that wound up running third in the Kentucky Derby in 1980.

“He came up with that name in advance, because Jack thought it was going to be a filly,” Koch said.

Swimming Therapy

Conway owns two horses.

“They have reached the point of walking around the stall, which is an improvement,” he wisecracked. “They are also undergoing swimming therapy. If the track ever has a three-furlong backstroke event, I’ll be rich.”

Some celebrities--although most won’t admit it--attend the races for the reason most fans do: to bet. One such was director John Stahl.


“I got to know him when I became his assistant director for ‘The Keys of the Kingdom,’ ” Koch said. “Whenever I saw him at Hollywood Park, he loved to bet every horse in a race. That way he would always have the winner, even if it meant having to tear up 10 other tickets.”

Nowadays, now and then, someone unexpected puts in an appearance. On opening day of the spring-summer meeting last year, Michael Jackson escorted Elizabeth Taylor, the star of “National Velvet”--herself an occasional horse owner.

Jackson sat sipping Evian water at a table with her.

“He wasn’t dressed as he should have been, but we let him in anyway,” said Koch, who has been on the track board for 10 years.

The two-level Directors’ Room, where many of the entertainment elite gather, is on the fourth floor of the facility, a flower-bedecked and crystal-chandeliered refuge overlooking the Turf Club. Admission is by membership only.

Free Buffet

Celebrities sit on cane chairs at tables, sampling fare at a free buffet and/or an open bar between races, perhaps pausing on the carpeted floor to regard the many framed prints adorning the walls and depicting racing scenes.

But sometimes the celebrities stray from the ivory tower to visit the paddock or otherwise look around and visit with their fans.


If he isn’t working, one frequent Turf Club visitor is Jackie Cooper--although, unlike the others, he was probably on the premises many hours earlier.

He likes to be a pony rider, tall in the saddle in his Levi’s and boots as he escorts thoroughbreds from the stable to the track for their morning workouts.

“He isn’t a golfer or a tennis player or a jogger,” said his wife, Barbara. “This is it for him.”

“I like to get out there at 6 a.m.,” Cooper said. “My horse--I think it’s a quarter horse--is named Pony, and the first thing I do is give him a brush-down to get the hay off, and then I comb his mane and tail.

“I’m pony boy for John Fulton, the trainer, and I usually escort six a day. I usually stay until about 10 a.m., and then head for the kitchen and eat like a cowboy.”

It doesn’t take long for a visitor to realize that this is Hollywood Park. Even the board of its racing charities organization includes such names as Angie Dickinson and Audrey Meadows Six. When the movie and television show makers are scouting locations, such as for “Beverly Hills Cop II” or “Murder, She Wrote,” this is often where they turn.


Flood of Memories

Mention of such brought back a memory to Koch: “I became an assistant director to Mervyn LeRoy when he was with MGM in 1949. Whenever he got a chance, he would take me to watch the horses work.

“ ‘Let’s run out (to the track), nobody’ll know,’ he would say. ‘And if they find out, maybe we’re looking for locations.’ ”

Memories, memories. Just about everyone in racing has one of Cary Grant, who died a year ago. Koch had a poignant one:

“We would have lunch after our Wednesday board meeting. During our meal just three days before his passing, he was beaming over the fact that he and his wife had just recited their marriage vows again in a church in England. He said that they planned the next year to go to a different town and do the same thing.”

Memories of a happier type, for future years, will be made today as the Southland hosts racing’s big day.

Inasmuch as Conway’s pair are still taking swimming lessons, the fans won’t get to see any horses carrying his silks, the back of which have the words: “No Passing.”


“It doesn’t do any good,” he said. “All the other horses ignore it.”