The long goodbye for Hollywood Park, through knowing eyes
Saturday will bring one more ripple to Betfair Hollywood Park’s mostly quiet waters.
So, you ask Richard Warren for a crowd prediction.
It will be CashCall Futurity day, the last outing of the year for 2-year-old thoroughbreds aiming at the Triple Crown races. That’s a legitimate attraction.
Warren grimaces, then wrinkles his brow. You prompt him a bit. Maybe 15,000 fans?
He finally shrugs and says, “Yes, maybe. It sure won’t be like the old days.”
Forgive him for his lack of enthusiasm. He has earned the right to a measure of disdain for the current plight of an industry that has been his life.
Warren is 86. He has worked at Hollywood Park since 1948. That’s two years before Vin Scully sat before a microphone to do Dodgers games in Brooklyn and 10 years before Scully showed up to do them here in Los Angeles. The two are certainly not comparable in fame, but are in seniority and memory.
“I was right out of the Army in ’47,” Warren says, “and some of my friends and I from upstate New York decided to come out here to get out of the snow.
“I got a job at Hollywood Park and never left.”
He has been an usher and administrator in the box seat section for most of his years, and box section 211 remains as much his home as the house he sleeps in in Tarzana. His Tarzana family includes two sons. His wife died two years ago.
His Hollywood Park family will soon be homeless.
With the track’s final day, Dec. 22, looming, he has become, for the thousands who know him, a sort of symbol of past joy and current sadness.
“People stop to talk,” he says, “and none of them — I really mean none of them — still believe they are going to tear this place down for real estate. We’ve all been told that, but nobody seems to believe it.”
But then, he talks about his frequent sighting of “eight or 10 people, walking around, looking at everything, and one of them has a clipboard.” That means, he says, they are taking inventory of the metal and copper that needs to be stripped before the wrecking ball.
It is a Thursday, a couple of hours before post time.
“This is our slowest day,” Warren says, keynoting the obvious. The slowest day used to be Wednesday, but they don’t even race on Wednesdays anymore, so Thursday inherited the label.
There is little to do, leaving much time to take a longing look around and longing looks back.
The track is as always. Sun sparkles off the lakes in the infield and giant airplanes drift overhead en route to LAX.
“We used to have 30,000 people on a Wednesday,” Warren says, “and then we could get it up to around 60,000 on Saturdays. People were everywhere, zipping around, talking, trying to get into these seats. The job’s a lot easier now.”
It takes a little coaxing, but Warren’s personal memory bank opens.
“I remember Fred Astaire, sitting in these boxes,” he says. “Then, there’d be Lucy and Desi Arnaz and they’d be arguing about something and they’d be with Jimmy Durante and he’d be just sitting there, smoking a big cigar, and ignoring them.”
Most of the greatest thoroughbreds in history ran at Hollywood Park, and Warren says, to him, one was the most impressive.
“I saw Citation in the post parade and I really remember it because he just stood out,” Warren says. “I don’t remember the year, or the race, or even if he won, but you looked at him and you knew he was special.”
Citation, the eighth of 11 Triple Crown champions, won the Hollywood Gold Cup in 1951. It was his last race and, with that victory, he became the first horse to top $1 million in winnings.
Warren recalls movie mogul Louis B. Mayer, arriving with groups of 15 to 20 people. He remembers track owner Marje Everett “walking around like a peacock” on the arm of Cary Grant.
He recalls race fans losing their perspective in their moment of excitement at seeing legendary jockey Bill Shoemaker, sitting in the box seats. Shoemaker was in a wheelchair after his paralyzing auto accident, his arms flat on the armrest and incapable of movement.
“People would ask for an autograph,” Warren says, “and Shoemaker would just smile and say, “‘Sorry.’ The poor people would be so embarrassed.”
He remembers the arrival of his buddy, Milton Berle, who would ask the same question every time as he headed for his box seat: “Hear any good jokes?”
Warren has always worked at Santa Anita too, and will continue to do so. His 87th birthday is next month, but there will be no slowing down.
“What would I do, watch TV all day?” he says.
Saturday’s CashCall will be, in essence, the last hurrah of 75 years of racing at the grand old track. Next week is more for nostalgia than competition.
“It won’t feel good,” Warren says. “It is losing an old friend.”
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