Park is not a park and it isn't in Hollywood.
the name is still appropriate, since a surprising number of Hollywood celebrities
are involved in the Sport of Kings. It wasn't hard to spot a familiar face
at the track, especially if you hung around the winner's circle. And since
a recent multimillion dollar facelift which added fountains, gardens, and
a European-style walking ring, the historic "track of lakes and flowers"
is indeed looking more like a verdant park.
Many of the stars owned and raced their own stable of horses.
Telly Savalas, for instance, owned the renowned "Telly's Pop." (For a big race, Savalas once made a dramatic entrance at the track via a helicopter.) Bing Crosby not only owned race horses, but he was a shareholder in Hollywood Park and built the Del Mar race track near San Diego.
Fred Astaire loved the races, and actually married a female jockey in his latter years. Louis B. Mayer became so obsessed with his stable of ponies that he was given an ultimatum by M-G-M: produce horses or produce pictures. Cary Grant was such a regular at Hollywood Park that after he died, they named their new clubhouse the Cary Grant Pavilion. Al Jolson was an avid owner of racehorses, as was Michael Landon and even rapper MC Hammer.
Other owners of racehorses include actor Kevin Costner, quizmaster Alex Trebek ("Jeopardy!"), country singer George Strait, comic Tim Conway, and Nash Bridges' Don Johnson (whose horse won $300,000 in one race.) Other celebs are friends of owners; some are simply big racing fans.
The racing program and the Daily Racing Form both list the owners of each horse, so you could sometimes anticipate the arrival of a particular celebrity in the winners circle. Other celebrities were actually on the Board of Directors at the park, such as actor John Forsythe, producer Howard Koch, and Mervyn LeRoy (who directed "Gypsy," "Little Caesar," and "The Bad Seed").
But even without the Racing Form, spotting a famous face in the Winners Circle at Hollywood Park wasn't hard. Over the years, I had personally have seen Cary Grant, Richard Dreyfuss, Michael Landon, Merv Griffin, Annette Funicello, Jack Benny's wife, Mary Livingston, General Omar Bradley, John Forsythe, baseball manager Jim Fregosi, and Burt Reynolds & Loni Anderson (when they were still together) out at the races.
Between races, many of the celebs hid out in the exclusive Turf Club. But one night, I spotted "Oscar Madison" himself, Jack Klugman, stuffing his face at a nearby stand-up table in the very public food court, while he waited for the results of a photo finish to come up. (Jack's horse lost, I'm sorry to report.) Dressed in his usual scruffy attire, Jack blended right into the grandstand crowd, and went unnoticed.
Alas, the times have changed.
What made Hollywood Park so popular was the fact that, for decades, horse racing was the only legal form of gambling in California. If you wanted to make a bet, you had to make the pilgrimage to one of the local tracks. But all of that began to change a few years back when off-track betting became legal. Suddenly, you could go somewhere other than Hollywood Park to make a bet on a race run at Hollywood Park. Then came the California Lottery. It's $100 million jackpots made the track's Pick Six payoffs look puny by comparison. And buying a Lotto ticket didn't require trekking out to Inglewood. Then came legal gambling casinos offering card games, followed by the Indian casinos offering slots and other Vegas-style gaming. Then came the Internet. Now you can stay at home and make a legal bet on a Hollywood Park race, and watch the results on TV. Not surprisingly, attendance at Hollywood Park (and other race tracks) plummeted. Where we used to see huge crowds of 80,000 on opening day and at major races, now they are lucky to get 13,000. And the crowd has changed as well. Fewer and fewer wealthy bettors seem to be coming, and even the middle-class are shying away from the Inglewood location. The crowds have become smaller, older and poorer. Not a recipe for success...
Talk is that Churchill Downs, which now owns Hollywood Park, is considering tearing down Hollywood Park to sell the valuable land for retail development. They are reportedly considering building a new, smaller track in Irvine, in Orange County, where they feel they can attract a more upscale clientele.
But for the time being, Hollywood Park is still open and doing business. And on busy weekends, offering a big race, it can almost seem like it used to in its heyday...
Thoroughbred racing usually begins with the Summer/Spring Meet in late-April and runs through late July, and there is also a short Autumn Meet starting in early November and running through mid-December. (From Dec. 26 through April, racing moves to Santa Anita race track, in Arcadia.) But racing seasons are subject to schedule changes, so phone for exact dates and times.
[ Santa Anita racetrack also attracts many of the same celebrities that go to Hollywood Park. In fact, one entertainment news show reports spotting Melissa Joan Hart ("Sabrina, the Teenage Witch"), Pierce Brosnan (007), Jack Nicholson, Roseanne, Cybil Shepherd and Whoopi Goldberg out at the track. past owners of horses at Santa Anita included Spencer Tracy and Errol Flynn. It's also where Fred Astaire first met his future wife, jockey Robyn Smith. And it's where Seabiscuit won many of his key races - in fact, there's a statue of Seabiscuit right in front of the grandstands. When they made the 2003 movie, "Seabiscuit", they shot many of the film's race scenes here. Santa Anita is located in Arcadia, about 18 miles northeast of Los Angeles. The address is at 285 W Huntington Drive, in Arcadia, CA - (626) 574-7223.
[You can find the official Hollywood Park website at http://www.hollywoodpark.com.]
[You can find the official Santa Anita website at http://santaanita.com.]
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