Remembering Hollywood Park

On the morning of December 22, 2013, sunrise appeared over Southern California. For those who watched it, there was likely nothing unusual about the sight. But this particular sunrise also signaled the start of a sunset.

By nightfall, the region would never be the same. And neither would the sport of Thoroughbred racing.

After seventy-five years in operation, closing day for Hollywood Park had arrived. The announcement had been disclosed months earlier, and the storied venue continued on with its live programs during the spring and summer before hosting its final autumn meet. Each day was one step closer to the time countless fans dreaded, and it had now come.

Opening in 1938, Hollywood Park was the third major racetrack built in Southern California that decade. Built by entertainers that collectively comprised the Hollywood Turf Club, it grew in stature over the years thanks to future legends and icons competing there. And the historical moments that took place within Hollywood Park’s walls is truly amazing. Here are just a few:

-Seabiscuit capturing the first Hollywood Gold Cup in 1938

-Citation winning the 1951 Hollywood Gold Cup to retire as racing’s first millionaire

-Swaps taking five stakes during the 1956 spring/summer meet while setting or equaling several track and world records

-Native Diver winning a record ten stakes there throughout the 1960s, anchored by his unprecedented three Hollywood Gold Cups in 1965, 1966 and 1967

-Cougar becoming the sport’s eleventh millionaire and first foreign-bred millionaire after winning the 1973 Century Handicap

-Cigar picking up the 1995 Hollywood Gold Cup during his first Horse of the Year campaign

-Laffit Pincay, Jr. overtaking Bill Shoemaker for the title of all-time winningest jockey in December 1999

-Zenyatta edging St. Trinians in the 2010 Vanity Handicap for her seventeenth consecutive victory, breaking the record for longest win streak shared by Citation and Cigar

Hollywood Park also made history when it became the host of the inaugural Breeders’ Cup in 1984. A new era began that day as the idea hatched by John R. Gaines came to fruition in front of over 60,000 fans, and the track that had been conceived by entertainment legends like Bing Crosby, Mervyn LeRoy and the Warner Brothers had again been part of something spectacular.

But now, only one day of racing was left.

People were cognizant of the event's significance, for over 13,000 were reported to have attended. However, the crowd size seemed much larger on television as the cameras focused on the stands during the card. But no matter the number, everyone who walked into the Track of the Lakes and Flowers knew they were part of something historic. Even if they were not longtime racing fans, Hollywood Park touched them because of the moment.

That also went for some who were more directly involved with the local racing scene.

Some time after retiring from the saddle, Rafael Bejarano might tell the story of how he was the jockey that won the most races on Hollywood Park's final day. Bejarano, the circuit's dominant rider at the time, was no doubt honored to have reached the winner’s circle on that particular program. He did so in the opener aboard Maxx the Giant, and he would add three more victories as well as the riding title to his collection.

In the day’s third race, a California-bred filly named Tanquerray topped eight rivals in an allowance optional claiming contest on turf. Her victory was notable due to the fact that she had legendary actor Dick Van Patten as a co-owner. A longtime racing fan who was a regular at Hollywood Park, Van Patten had to have felt conflicting emotions. The joy of winning along with the sadness of the track's closing must have blended to create a bittersweet feeling for him, but it was fitting Van Patten won given how he loved the sport. And it also served as a reminder of the long and storied relationship between Hollywood and Thoroughbred racing.

Much later in the program, the feature race was run under the lights. Set at seven furlongs over the main surface, the King Glorious Stakes featured ten California-bred or sired two-year-old horses. Months before he would emerge as the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes champion, California Chrome stalked the early pace before putting on a powerful stretch run to become Hollywood Park’s final stakes winner. Training the chestnut colt was Art Sherman, who had long been a part of racing in the Golden State. For Sherman, the moment might have made him recall memories of his youth when he served as an exercise rider for fellow California-bred Swaps, winner of the 1955 Kentucky Derby. In that brief time, Sherman's past and future mingled at Hollywood Park.

Then came the finale on the eleven-race card, a one and one-sixteenth mile starter allowance on the turf. Named the Auld Lang Syne, it drew twelve horses to the course. As they left the starting gate, announcer Vic Stauffer began his tribute. One of Hollywood Park’s longest tenured racecallers, Stauffer carried a deep appreciation of the venue's history. As he called the action, Stauffer mentioned the names of several Thoroughbred legends who captivated crowds at the Home of Champions before saying that the dozen horses currently racing were moving past the lakes and flowers. Knowing it was his last time behind the microphone at Hollywood Park, Stauffer made sure to give the place he loved one more token of appreciation.

And Hollywood Park itself had one more exciting moment in store. It was as if the track had decided it would not go quietly that December evening. As the fans watched in wonder from the grandstand, Hollywood Park produced a thrilling photo finish. Moments later, Woodmans Luck, jockey Corey Nakatani and trainer Vladimir Cerin were revealed as the winners of the last race by a nose. Looking back, no rider could have won but a longtime staple of the colony. And Nakatani, who had grown up locally, owned track titles across the circuit, and was among the all-time top ten winning riders at Hollywood Park, was exactly that. Now a member of the Hall of Fame, the win has to be among the most significant of Nakatani's career. And perhaps appropriately, the Auld Lang Syne was taken by a California-bred horse.

Though it no longer stands, Hollywood Park has not disappeared into history. On any given day, races across those seventy-five years can be seen either online or on DVD. Just like that, the Track of the Lakes and Flowers is back in all its majesty and splendor as fans watch old Hollywood Gold Cups, Sunset Handicaps or Californian Stakes. They can also learn about Hollywood Park by reading numerous racing books and magazines, and by accessing articles whenever they roam Thoroughbred racing websites.

And those who recount their Hollywood Park adventures to friends and family might also be handing their stories down to the next generation. Doing so conveys the love they have for this storied venue.

Ten years ago, Hollywood Park hosted its final racing program. But thanks to print media, the Internet, DVDs and its loyal fans, Hollywood Park is still alive.

Published by Support California Horse Racing, December 22, 2023