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Hollywood Park’s racing days could be numbered

Bloomekatz is a Times staff writer.

About 10 minutes before post time at the Hollywood Park racetrack this month, Paul Belanger recalled how he first fell for horse racing about 30 years ago.

Fascinated by the “numbers puzzle,” he would sort through each horse’s performance statistics, pick his favorites and place his bets.

“Unfortunately, I won a lot of money the first time I went to the track,” Belanger joked. “The first time you pick a 10-to-1 shot, you’re never going” to forget that feeling, he said.

Decades later, the grandstands at Hollywood Park in Inglewood are seldom packed and there’s always ample parking. But Belanger is among the few thousand who still enjoy a day at the races, even though the landmark track is in its waning days.

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“Come on two!” Belanger yelled from his seat at the bar, clenching the Daily Racing Form in his right hand as he watched the third race on a television. He had his money on Aitcho, a 3-year-old from Kentucky who was supposed to run well late in the race. He didn’t.

If Hollywood Park closes, the 50-year-old landscape designer from West Los Angeles said, he’ll have to place his bets at Santa Anita or Del Mar. But he vows to study and watch the horses as long as they are running.

The track’s days are numbered, with a commitment from the park to have races at least though summer 2009.

In 2005, Bay Meadows Land Co. bought Hollywood Park from the Churchill Downs owners. The new owners plan to demolish the park, once known as the “Track of the Lakes and Flowers” because of its six lakes, a waterfall and sprawling greens.

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In its place, a mixed-use commercial development is envisioned, said Inglewood Councilman Daniel Tabor. The proposal includes 600,000 square feet of commercial space, up to 27 acres of parkland, a refurbished casino and about 4,000 homes.

Tabor said Bay Meadows is in the initial stages of planning and recently submitted its environmental impact report. The city has not yet approved the project. He said he knows the plans don’t sit well with the bettors, but the new development would be more profitable for its owners and help revitalize Inglewood.

“The reality is this,” Tabor said. “Horse racing in California doesn’t make money like it did when there wasn’t competition for entertainment dollars. . . . From a business standpoint, it’s clear that they need to do something with the land that will be profitable.”

Competition among card clubs, Indian casinos and Internet betting on horse races has contributed to dwindling crowds at racetracks, including Hollywood Park and Santa Anita. Going to the races is not the spectator event it once was.

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The heyday of horse racing, however, brought glamour and large crowds to Inglewood.

Old black-and-white photographs hanging outside the Longshots bar show cars packed like sardines in the parking lots in 1940. Other photos are of celebrities, including author Erich Remarque in 1939 and actors Norma Shearer and George Raft.

“You saw families, you saw the movie stars out here. You used to have wealthy people mixing with poor people,” said Jeanne Noice, a bartender at the track who said she has been working there for 30 years and “been betting here for 50.”

Years ago, she said, it would not have been so easy to talk to her. There would have been too many customers at the bar, trying to squeeze in a drink between races.

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The park first opened in 1938, and a grandstand and clubhouse fire closed the track in 1949. It reopened the next summer.

In 1951, the horse Citation became the first million-dollar earner in the nation after winning the Hollywood Gold Cup, according to the park’s website. In 1971, the track was one of the first to use the “exacta” in betting -- meaning a winning bettor picks the first two winners in the correct order -- and in 1973, the park began holding races on Sundays.

In 1977, Hollywood Park averaged more than $4 million in daily bets, the first track in the country to do so, and in May 1980, attendance at the park hit a new record, with 80,348 people in the crowd on a single day.

Mike Mooney, the track’s director of publicity, said the park is now averaging about 4,500 people a day. On Friday nights, when there are specials, attendance is closer to 6,300.

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Tyson Gill, 31, a drug counselor from South Gate, is a regular and has been coming nearly every day for two years.

“You got houses all over the place,” Gill said, adding that he liked coming to Hollywood Park because it was close to home and he could bring his family. “I don’t think they should close it,” he said.

There are some informal movements to save the park, including the website “Save Hollywood Park,” which asks readers: “Do we want to be singing that familiar tune . . . ‘You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone?’ ”

Yet, the park mainly attracts older men. Noice said the young people seem to come only when there are special attractions or on nights when beers cost a dollar.

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“How you doing, Paulie?” Noice asked Belanger at the bar. She calls many of her customers by their first name, asks about their children and helps ponder bets.

“I need a winner, Jeanne,” another man said.

“Well, this is it,” she said. “We need the one horse.”

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ari.bloomekatz@latimes.com


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