In a 2009 article published in Harper’s magazine, the cultural essayist Richard Rodriguez dwelt on the looming end of a local institution, the San Francisco Chronicle.
“When a newspaper dies in America,” Rodriguez wrote, “it is not simply that a commercial enterprise has failed; a sense of place has failed.”
The passage has come vividly to mind in recent weeks as Sunday’s last racing program at Betfair Hollywood Park drew near. As a building, Hollywood Park is nothing special. But as a place where the culture of Thoroughbred racing could be found, since 1938, Hollywood has been home sweet home, and with the loss and leveling of Hollywood Park, racing’s sense of place takes a terrible hit.
For 75 years, Hollywood has been a significant physical presence, standing tall as a proud reminder that even if you don’t play the ponies at least somebody does, because look at all that land and those imposing structures.
Now, there will be one less place for the extended family of Thoroughbred racing to gather, one less place to rub shoulders with like-minded spirits, to complain and cajole, and to try and fathom the mysteries of the game.
Sunday’s final day will be awash with nostalgia, an 11-race Irish wake with rolling pick threes. They say the funeral is a sellout in the Turf Club, where fiddles will play while Rome burns. No one should have a good day.
“Everybody can look around and blame everybody else, but its just a really sad situation,” said Jerry Moss, best known as the man who graced Hollywood Park no less than eight times with his remarkable mare, Zenyatta.
“I was always hoping to get the state of California involved in doing something to protect the land, and protect horse racing’s investment,” Moss said. “It was never forthcoming. The first excuse was the financial crash. Then the governors had too much to do. And third, the Indian interests unfortunately own the state so far as gambling is concerned.”
Moss, who also served on the California Horse Racing Board, acknowledged the growing frustration over corporate racetrack ownership that must answer to the profit demands of shareholders, often to the exclusion of the industry’s welfare. Hollywood fell into such hands in 1999 when it was purchased by Churchill Downs Inc., which sold out to Bay Meadows Land Co. in 2005.
“They’re private corporations, so what are you going to do?” Moss said.
What you can do, said owner-breeder Arnold Zetcher, is answer the challenge to wean racetracks away from corporate pressures.
“Non-profit is the only real answer,” said Zetcher, who has raced such major winners as Richard’s Kid and Gabby’s Golden Gal. “And by that I don’t mean you’re not trying to make money, but that the profits you do make are reinvested in the facility and the industry itself.”
The models are out there and familiar, but sometimes under attack. The Oak Tree Racing Association was the gold standard of non-profit racing operations until its lease at Santa Anita Park was nullified by the Stronach Group that rose from the ashes of Magna Entertainment’s bankruptcy. During the depths of the recession there was talk of California selling the Del Mar Fairgrounds property, which would have left the fate of the not-for-profit Del Mar Thoroughbred Club in limbo. Fortunately, the idea was swatted down.
Still, the idea that Del Mar might have gone to developers was enough for owner-breeder Mike Pegram to have stepped up with a rescue plan to either buy the track with a group of horsemen or operate the track for public ownership. Pegram, currently president of the Thoroughbred Owners of California, pointed out that Hollywood’s fate was sealed long ago.
“When you start talking about getting a return on the $250 million the current owner bought it for, it’s next to impossible,” Pegram said. “It would have taken someone with a lot of courage to bet against a whole lot of things.”
The operators of the Bay Meadows Land Co. always took the position that they were doing the racing industry a favor by keeping Hollywood Park afloat these past eight years. In fact, they were subjecting the sport to a drip torture that encouraged procrastination and severely compromised growth. Each time a proposal came forth that envisioned a future without Hollywood Park, that proposal was shouted down by those who were either convinced Hollywood’s owners were kidding, or terrified that they would pull the rug out overnight if their racing dates were touched.
Optimists see the end of Hollywood Park as an opportunity for an invigorated reimagining of the Southern California racing landscape. No question, there will be a certain amount of chaos, as owners, trainers, and their employees deal with the loss of a major, well-located training facility. California’s reputation as a first-class circuit could take a temporary hit, as skeptics wait and see how the realigned calendar shakes out.
Beyond the dream of an invigorated circuit, inspired by change to survive and thrive, there is only one other sliver of good that could come from the deep wound being inflicted upon the racing industry. If, say, five years from now there are well populated homes, shops, parks, offices, and public promenades where once Hollywood Park stood, then the grand old place will not have died in vain. It’s not much, but it’s something.