Echoing crowds of yesteryear and making one last memory, fans flocked into Betfair Hollywood Park for a final time Dec. 22. They were there until the lights went out on the Track of Lakes and Flowers, bringing to an end a golden era of Los Angeles racing.
Located in the city of Inglewood near Los Angeles International Airport, the 238-acre property that opened for racing June 10, 1938, is slated for redevelopment into a shopping center, hotel, and homes.
The Auld Lang Syne, a $25,000 starter allowance race (VIDEO) with a $57,750 purse, rang out an 11-race card Sunday, the last live racing to be held at the landmark site that hosted 75 years of memorable competition. A crowd of 13,283 was on hand at Hollywood Park for the last time.
Trumpeter Jay Cohen brought out the post parade with a medley of "Auld Lang Syne" and "Hooray for Hollywood."
As the horses thundered past the finish line, race caller Vic Stauffer told the crowd, "A photo finish. Seventy-five years came down to a camera close-up." Then he added, "Seventy-five years at Hollywood Park. That's a wrap!"
A moment later Stauffer closed with: "Ladies and gentlemen, that concludes racing at Hollywood Park, the Track of Lakes and Flowers. Good night." Then they played "Happy Trails to You," with Roy Rogers and Dale Evans singing.
For posterity's sake, the winner of the final race, Woodmans Luck, was ridden to victory by Corey Nakatani for owners Holly and David Wilson and trainer Vladimir Cerin. The son of Lucky Pulpit is a 5-year-old gelding bred in California by Mr. and Mrs. Larry Williams out of the Woodman mare Royal Woodman.
It was the 1,202nd win at Hollywood Park for Nakatani, leaving him eighth on the all-time list, and a victory he will cherish.
"That was really emotional," Nakatani said. "It's hard to really say that much. This has always been such a great place to be. After winning a bunch of races here, it's hard to see it go. It's pretty sad."
Cerin shared the same sentiment.
"I almost would have taken a four-horse dead heat there and let everyone have a piece of the last race," he said. "When they were coming down the stretch, all I could think of his how sad that it was over.
"It's almost hard to enjoy the win when you think this is the last race at this racetrack. When I started training here, I think it took me a year to win my first race and to have it end like this just seems surreal."
A race earlier, the last Cushion Track event was also the final stakes to be run at Hollywood. It was the $200,000 King Glorious for 2-year-olds bred or sired in California, which was won in a 6 1/4-length runaway by 2-1 favorite California Chrome and Victor Espinoza.
Also a son of Lucky Pulpit, the flashy chestnut colt is owned and bred by Perry Martin and Steve Coburn out of the winning Not For Love mare Love the Chase. Art Sherman, who got his start as a jockey at Hollywood in 1955, was the winning trainer.
"It brings back a lot of memories for me," Sherman said. "It's a special thing to be able to win here at Hollywood Park. I started here as a young kid. Rode my first race here when I was 18. Going back through the years, we had a lot of fun here with the big crowds and great horses.
"It's fitting for me, but I feel very sad," he added.
"It's fun to win the last stakes here," Espinoza said. "One extra memory of Hollywood Park. I've had a lot of ups and downs here, but this is where I started. When I moved to California, this is where I won my first race. I've won a lot of big races at this track."
Espinoza was looking ahead, however. "In a way it's sad, but you have to move on in life," he said.
During his final call, Stauffer made mention of some of the elite horses that had trained and raced there, such Thoroughbred superstars as Seabiscuit, Triple Crown winners Citation, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed, and, of course, Zenyatta.
The first Breeders' Cup in 1984 was run there, making Hollywood the first Breeders' Cup host track to shut down.
For its last day, though, the track came alive again, with a jammed parking lot, lines at the betting windows, and fans and employees swapping stories about the place. The paid attendance was at least double that of a typical weekend. To alleviate congestion, the gates were opened to everyone after 2 p.m., a track spokesman said.
It was the largest crowd since 25,837 attended Zenyatta's last race in California on Oct. 2, 2010.
Rafael Bejarano rode four winners on the card to wrap up the jockeys' title with 37 winners. Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert was shut out on the final day, but held on for the training title with 16 winners to John Sadler's 15.
Dick Van Patten, the 85-year-old actor who starred in TV's "Eight is Enough," was a longtime regular. He walked away a winner, when his horse Tanquerray won the $50,000 third race.
Amid the sadness was some bitterness as well.
Jack Van Berg, the 77-year-old Hall of Fame trainer, blamed the cities of Inglewood and Los Angeles and the state of California for the track's closure.
"I just think it's a pathetic thing," he said near the paddock. "It's ridiculous to let something like this that so many people love and thrive on close. They did everything they could to kill racing."
Hollywood Park is the second major California racetrack to close since 2008, when Bay Meadows near San Francisco was shuttered after 74 years. It was closed to make way for a similar development by the same land company that is shuttering Hollywood.
Santa Anita Park, located in Arcadia, will open its winter/spring meet Dec. 26. It and Del Mar will pick up most of Hollywood's dates. Los Alamitos in Orange County will pick up some of Hollywood Park's calendar, too.
The track's future had been in question since Churchill Downs Inc. sold it to Bay Meadows Land Co. in 2005.
At the time, the new owner said racing would continue for a minimum of three years while an effort was made to revitalize the sport's business model. But the track had little luck in stemming declines in wagering and attendance, problems that plague the racing industry nationwide, and attempts to bring in slot machines met firm resistance at the state level. A statewide initiative also failed.
Plans call for the track to be turned into 3,000 housing units, including single-family townhomes and condos; 25 acres of parkland, including a 10-acre central park; and a retail and entertainment district, anchored by a movie theater, office space, and a 300-room hotel.
Hollywood Park was started under the direction of movie moguls Jack and Harry Warner. Among the celebrity regulars years ago were Elizabeth Taylor, Jimmy Stewart, and Bing Crosby.
Baffert made his first visit from Arizona in the early 1970s.
"The thing I remember most was getting up close to the winner's circle and seeing Cary Grant," he said. "That was a thrill."