STAR TRACK : Hollywood Park Made Its Splashy Debut 50 Years Ago
There was, so the story goes, an atmosphere of near panic at Hollywood Park.
Only a day or two remained before the scheduled opening of the spring meeting, but it had been raining heavily and the effects were distressingly obvious. The track was holding up all right, but the infield was another matter. Where flowers were supposed to be blooming, there was nothing but mud. What to do?
The solution was pure Hollywood.
Several thousand paper pie plates were hastily ordered and just as hastily painted pink and white. These were then interspersed in the flower beds among what few blooms remained, a couple of rows of hothouse plants serving as camouflage in the foreground. Later, when the real flowers recovered, the pie plates were removed and no one, supposedly, was any the wiser.
The subterfuge had worked and the track that had first opened little more than a decade earlier, boasting the slogan “The Public Be Pleased!” now had a new one: “The Public Be Fooled!”
The incident is trivial, perhaps, but also instructive. At Hollywood Park, image is everything.
On Wednesday, the Inglewood track will open its spring-summer meeting, during which it will celebrate its 50th anniversary. This time, despite last week’s rain, the flowers look fine, and the grass course has not had to be spray-painted green--another recent bit of subterfuge--but the image-making persists.
Perhaps this is the inevitable result of having been founded in the heyday of Hollywood, when the men who made the movies also made the moves that led to the founding of a cross-town rival for Santa Anita. The original 600 shareholders included numerous producers, directors, actors and actresses and featured some of Hollywood’s most prominent names.
Among those who invested in the venture were Jack and Harry Warner, Al Jolson, Raoul Walsh, Darryl Zanuck, Walt Disney, Samuel Goldwyn, Joan Blondell, George Jessel, Irene Dunne, Hal Wallis, Mervyn LeRoy, Bing Crosby, Ralph Bellamy and Ronald Colman.
So close was the Hollywood-Inglewood connection, in fact, that gossip columnist Hedda Hopper found herself trotting down to the track almost as often as she visited the studios.
It was on June 10, 1938, that Hollywood Park first opened its gates to the public and, in an article in The Times that morning, Hopper wrote:
“Like all of Hollywood, I’ll be right there watching the sport of kings for the kings and queens of the cinema. . . . The studios have declared a half-holiday. . . . Now our visitors wonder whether we’re producing pictures, race horses or both.”
Some still wonder.
In its first half century, Hollywood Park has been the scene of some great racing--the nation’s top horses, trainers and jockeys have competed there--but there still exists a feeling that this is not a horseman’s track, that too much importance is put on those who present the trophies rather than those who earn them.
At the race track of the stars, the stars of the race track don’t always get top billing.
Things were no different 50 years ago. As Hollywood Park prepares to celebrate its golden anniversary, this is what it was like on that overcast Friday half a century ago when, after years of political bickering, the first summer meeting in California racing history got under way.
First, the setting.
In those days of unabashed promotion, local newspapers had carried chapter and verse on the track’s construction. Those who cared to know such things could have learned, for example, that 6 million feet of lumber was used, or 2,200 tons of steel, or 43,046 sacks of cement, or $2 million.
What this all added up to was an impressive facility featuring a clubhouse that seated 3,000, a 12,000-seat grandstand, standing room for another 40,000 and stalls for 1,250 horses.
Every effort was made to stage the racing in surroundings as attractive as Santa Anita’s. To this end, the 37-acre infield was painstakingly landscaped, with trees and flowers complementing three artificial lakes covering 10 acres, replete with islands and waterfalls.
In a distinctly Hollywood touch, a “goose girl” was chosen to oversee the track’s resident colony of ducks and later to paddle about the lakes in a swan-shaped boat.
An enclosed saddling paddock and a sunken tote board that allowed fans a clear view of the backstretch were other innovations, but a radical and surely Hollywood-inspired idea to display the horses on a revolving turntable before each race was abandoned.
The fact that such a concept as an equine Lazy Susan was even considered illustrates the show business leanings of the track’s founders.
Mervyn LeRoy once said: “Like motion pictures, racing is amusement, and in the amusement field the public will patronize only the best.”
LeRoy, a director of the track for more than 30 years, was not the only one to compare horse racing to show business. The late James D. Stewart, general manager of Hollywood Park from 1953 to 1972, made the same observation.
“We have to put on something much more than great racing,” he said. “We have to stage a show, a spectacle against a background of beauty and in an atmosphere of dignity and taste.”
Stewart evidently practiced that philosophy. During 19 of the 20 years he was in charge, Hollywood Park led the nation in daily average attendance, handle and purses.
In 1938, such future success was not foreseen, but everything possible had been done to make eventual success a real possibility. As one columnist wrote just before the opening: “Everything is brand new except the systems of losing your money.”
Finally, all was ready. What a few years earlier had been 315 acres of farmland and swamp had become “the track of lakes and flowers.” The question now was, would it attract the fans?
“The track is only 25 minutes’ ride from the heart of Hollywood and about 20 minutes from Los Angeles proper,” said The Times, which published a map on the best routes to use.
Once one got there, there were two choices: General admission was $1.10; clubhouse admission $2.75. A season pass to the clubhouse was $55.
It rained on opening-day morning, but by the time the inaugural ceremonies began at 1 p.m. the showers had given way to intermittent drizzle.
This did not dampen the spirits of the crowd, generously estimated by General Manager Jack Mackenzie at 40,000 but later shown to be 25,258. The fans cheered the San Gabriel fife and drum corps; they cheered track announcer Joe Hernandez, who introduced Jack Warner, who introduced Al Jolson; they cheered the parade of thoroughbreds; they cheered Jack Benny and Pat O’Brien and George Burns and Gracie Allen, who were broadcasting from the stands.
But they cheered loudest when bugler Harry Bunton sounded the call to the post for the first race.
And here one must pause and look ahead to the next day’s headlines.
“Inaugural Lures 40,000: Air Chute Captures Opening Turf Feature at Hollywood Park,” said one.
“Film Stars Attend Races: Hollywood Turns Out En Masse for Opening of New Turf Club,” said another.
“Fog, Mist Ruin Color Scheme: White Deserted by Women Who Attend Inglewood Opening,” said a third.
But nowhere was there any mention of Valley Lass.
Today, one can search Hollywood Park in vain for any reference to the California-bred filly. Yet she holds a unique spot in the record books. Many great horses have appeared at the track, but neither Seabiscuit nor Citation, Native Diver nor Noor could emulate her feat.
What Valley Lass did on June 10, 1938, was win the first race ever run at Hollywood Park. But the star system beat even her. Her accomplishment was overshadowed, ironically, by her own jockey.
“Drama was in the air from the time the first field went to the post,” wrote The Times’ Paul Lowry.
“A swarthy little Italian boy rode the first winner--a tiny fellow named Silvio Coucci, once king of the country’s saddlesmiths.
“One of the forgotten boys--he retired two years ago after sinking into the depths of obscurity, his grip gone, his keen judgment of pace a myth, no longer the public’s idol--here was little Coucci on the comeback trail.
“Reminiscent of the days when the ladies wagered on him rather than the horse he was riding . . . Coucci came home in front on John Cromwell’s Valley Lass like a good thing from the fairy books.”
Or, the cynic might suggest, like a good thing from the script writers. This was, after all Hollywood Park.
For the record--and there were six records set or broken in the opening day’s eight races--Valley Lass covered the 5 furlongs on a fast track in 1:00 1/5, winning by 4 lengths and paying $4.60.
Not surprisingly, the day’s feature race made the headlines, with jockey Basil James ridding Air Chute to victory in the track’s first stakes race, the $2,500-added Hollywood Premiere Handicap. The Hollywood angle? Actress Barbara Stanwyck made the trophy presentation.
By the next day, the pattern was firmly established. Another big race, another movie star in the winner’s circle. This time the headline said it all: “Bing Crosby’s Ligaroti Wins $5,000 Inglewood Mile.” And Crosby was there for the traditional winner’s circle photo.
Now, a half century later, we have the Cary Grant Pavilion, formerly the Pavilion of the Stars. The movie crowd still finds its way from Hollywood and Vine to Prairie Avenue, and the words Hedda Hopper wrote June 10, 1938 ring as true as ever:
“The statement that those famous pictures you see on the screen are made in Hollywood is a great hoax. Metro is in Culver City, Warner Brothers is in Burbank and Hollywood Park is in Inglewood. But if it were in Timbuktu, our show folk would find it.”
But they might not spot the paper pie plates.
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