In front of a backdrop of palm trees and pink flamingos, jockeys maneuvered into the starting gates. Race fans placed their bets.
But the last post is coming soon. The 238-acre track will close in December, after a 75-year run. It’s a victim of rising California property values and declining attendance at races. The track will be replaced by 3,000 homes, retail space, and a hotel. Track regular Lorenzo Manuel called it a travesty.
“This is a backbone. It’s been here for so long, you know,” Manuel said. “Race fans, you know, come out here and this is, this is a tradition. You know what I mean? You’re killing a tradition.”
Jack and Harry Warner of Hollywood’s Warner Brothers fame founded Hollywood Park in 1938. It became the “track of the stars.” A-list shareholders included Walt Disney, crooner Bing Crosby and entertainer Al Jolson. Hollywood Park President Jack Liebau said the track became the first ever to offer Sunday racing, Friday night racing and “exotic” wagers that are now at tracks everywhere.
The exacta, the pick-six, the superfecta. You name it and it probably started at Hollywood Park.
In the early 1980s, Hollywood Park could attract 8,000 fans. Now, attendance is a trickle of that, leaving the stands largely empty.
“You know, it’s really quite sad to come out here on a Thursday or a Friday and three-quarters of the stands are just roped off,” said horse owner Bill Branch. “When I was a kid and I would come here with my dad, we would sit up in the far banks of left field and it was completely crowded.”
Hall of Fame jockey Laffit Pincay Jr. raced at Hollywood Park during its heyday. He said he remembers hearing about the track when he was a little kid in Panama. He won the first race he ran at Hollywood Park. Pincay said he always liked the track because it’s a soft track with a pretty view. He doesn’t want to see it close.
“It’s sad, you know. It’s sad because it shows that racing is not doing as well as it should be,” Pincay said.
Track President Jack Liebau said in California, racing’s been hurt by the prevalence of Indian casinos, which are the only venues in the state that have slot machines. Hollywood Park has a casino, but no slots. Satellite wagering and online wagering — originally intended to boost interest in horse racing — ended up siphoning off fans who’d come to the track regularly, like Richard Inafuku, who used to come every weekend. Now, he just bets and watches from home.
“When you come out here, it’s like this — empty. There’s no excitement,” Liebau said. “When you get 80,000 people like before, I mean, it just gets you all worked up and you get — your juice gets flowing. Here it’s just so empty that you go, ‘Eh, I may as well be at home.’”
Horse trainer Roger Karrian, who’s been in the industry for 42 years, said part of the problem is that horse racing isn’t in the public eye as much as it used to be.
“Years ago, you used to get race calls on the radio, on the stretch call with Bill Garr, OK? That thing disappeared,” Karrian said. “It used to be on the TV every night, the race replays. That’s gone.”
Karrian said the closure of Hollywood Park is going to help kill the racing industry. He pointed out the track is a key training facility for thoroughbreds, and without it, they won’t have as many places to get their legs. About 1,200 to 1,500 horses are stabled at the track. They’ll have to find new homes.
Horse owner Bill Branch said despite the closure of Hollywood Park, he thinks horse racing can still pull ahead.
“You know, they can talk about on-site attendance, but like, you know, when Zenyatta was racing here? It was packed,” Branch said. “I mean, what we really need, you know, is essentially a LeBron James of horseracing. That’s really what horse racing needs, and you know, the next generation of superstars will come. They just need to give it time. But unfortunately, there’s going to be no time here.”
Hollywood Park’s last race runs Dec. 22.