June 10, 1938, as the old saying goes, was the start of something big.
Less than four years after the opening of Santa Anita, and only eleven months following Del Mar's debut, Southern California was introduced to Hollywood Park.
Built in the Art Deco style like Santa Anita, Hollywood Park shined brightly in the city of Inglewood. Though it was actually not located in Tinseltown, Hollywood Park lived up to its name thanks to its association with notable entertainment figures of the era.
Led by the Warner Brothers of motion picture fame, the Hollywood Turf Club consisted of showbusiness luminaries like Wallace Beery, Joan Blondell, Bing Crosby, Walt Disney, Sam Goldwyn, Al Jolson, and Raoul Walsh, to name just a few. Perhaps the one individual from Hollywood that is synonymous with Hollywood Park is Mervyn LeRoy, the well known producer and director. In addition to being a Thoroughbred owner, LeRoy served as Hollywood Park's director from 1941 until 1986.
Over the years, Hollywood Park acquired a pair of nicknames. One was the Track of the Lakes and Flowers, which it rightly earned thanks to its infield lake along with all the beautiful flowers spread out on the grounds (fans could also spot flamingos there, too). The other moniker commonly associated with the track was the Home of Champions, and Hollywood Park proved to be just that from the beginning.
The biggest race of that initial summer session was the Hollywood Gold Cup, and it took little time for a champion to win it. Seabiscuit reigned as the most popular horse in 1938, and the Southern California based horse showed up for the inaugural Gold Cup that summer. The fans that came to watch their hero were not disappointed, for the little underdog made history as the first winner of what became one of the most prestigious races in the sport. That turned out to be the Biscuit's lone start at Hollywood Park, but he would be far from the only champion to hold court there.
Over the years, a plethora of great Thoroughbreds took their turn at conquering the Track of the Lakes and Flowers: Honeymoon, Noor, Citation, Swaps, Round Table, Native Diver, Ack Ack, Ancient Title, J.O. Tobin, Affirmed, Spectacular Bid, John Henry, Snow Chief, Ferdinand, Lava Man, and Zenyatta are just of the brilliant equines to grace the venue with their presence. Fans of every aforementioned horse will have memories of all of them during their days competing at Hollywood Park. And all of those wonderful Thoroughbreds supplied myriad memories to every person they touched.
Many of racing's finest jockeys captured riding titles throughout the track's seventy-five years, further enhancing its Home of Champions nickname. No one illustrated this better than Bill Shoemaker, who claimed a whopping eighteen meet titles at Hollywood Park (fifteen of them consecutively from 1953-1967). Joining Shoemaker in the canon of greatest Hollywood Park riders were John Longden, Laffit Pincay, Jr., Chris McCarron, Eddie Delahoussaye, Gary Stevens, Alex Solis, Patrick Valenzuela, Garrett Gomez, and Kent Desormeaux, every one of them a legend in the saddle.
If you are looking for some of the best trainers of all time, here is a sampling that put their names in the record books at Hollywood Park: William Molter, Noble Threewitt, R.H. (Red) McDaniel, Farrell Jones, Mesh Tenney, Charlie Whittingham, Mike Mitchell, Bobby Frankel, Mel Stute, Ron McAnally, Richard Mandella, Bob Baffert, Doug O'Neill, and John Sadler. Each name on that list trained stakes winners and have been held in high regard by many.
That goes for the track announcers, with Harry Henson, Trevor Denman, Luke Kruytbosch and Vic Stauffer among the talented and respected individuals who provided the soundtrack to the races on Prairie Avenue. And noted owners like Charles S. Howard, Louis B. Mayer, Calumet Farm, C.V. Whitney, Fred Hooper, Connie Ring, Harbor View Farm and Golden Eagle Farm collected top owner honors throughout Hollywood Park's history.
In addition to hosting some of the turf's finest, Hollywood Park served as the stage for many of the sport's grandest moments. In addition to Seabiscuit's Gold Cup score, Citation made history in 1951 when he not only captured the Gold Cup, but added to his Triple Crown by standing as racing's first millionaire. Retired after that achievement, Big Cy left the races not just a winner, but the true champion he was.
Swaps arguably starred in the greatest meet by a single Thoroughbred at Hollywood Park. The 1956 spring/summer meet belonged squarely to the chestnut son of Khaled. One year removed from his win in the Kentucky Derby, Swaps completely dominated in Inglewood, winning five stakes (including the Hollywood Gold Cup) while either equaling or setting new world records or establishing new track records). Unsurprisingly, Swaps (who was piloted by Bill Shoemaker that meet), went on to Top Handicap and Horse of the Year honors).
But of all of Hollywood Park's records, the most popular one of all has to be Native Diver's then-unprecedented three consecutive Hollywood Gold Cups. No one could beat the Diver in the 1965, 1966 and 1967 renewals, and the popular Cal-bred ran each of those Gold Cups quicker than the year before, an amazing feat. Only one horse matched that string of Gold Cup victories: Lava Man, who did so over the course of the 2005-2007 seasons.
Quite possibly the biggest day in Hollywood Park's history came in the 1984 Breeders' Cup. The event was designed to serve as a showdown between the sport's best horses and jockeys in a series of different races that would factor into the year-end divisional awards. Hosting duties for the first Breeders' Cup went to Hollywood Park, and over 60,000 came to watch the new addition to the racing calendar as well as millions more on television. The event turned out to be a major success, and it introduced fans to the beauty and splendor of Hollywood Park. The Breeders' Cup returned to its original home twice more in 1987 and 1997.
And not to be forgotten is Laffit Pincay, Jr. passing Bill Shoemaker to become at that point the leading rider in the world in December of 1999. Pincay spent weeks catching up to his friend, and everyone knew the record would soon belong to him. Just before the new millenium, Pincay caught it, adding yet another classic moment to the grand history of the Home of Champions.
Hollywood Park also had some shocking race results, none more so than in the 1977 Swaps Stakes. Just weeks removed from winning the Triple Crown, Seattle Slew showed up to the Track of the Lakes and Flowers to compete in the Swaps Stakes. Thousands were in attendance in early July to see Slew, and left absolutely stunned when J.O. Tobin pulled off the upset. No other outcome of a race in Hollywood Park's history delivered such surprise.
Clearly, plenty of great racing happened within the venue's walls, but Hollywood Park long stood as an innovator in Thorughbred racing. For example, racing fans were treated to a new wager called the exacta in 1971. When longtime head honcho Marje Everett ran the show, the track saw its biggest attendance figure in May of 1980. More than 80,000 went through the turnstiles, and awaiting fans was a tote bag. Hollywood Park also introduced early bird wagering for those who liked to bet first thing in the morning.
Even in the 2010s, Hollywood Park still made news with innovation. It holds the distinction of being the first track to implement what you know as the Early Pick 5. Accompanied by a low takeout of 14%, the wager has since grown into probably the most popular bet in California racing, if not the sport in general.
And of course, who could forget those Friday night race cards that started out in the 1990s when R.D. Hubbard was in charge? Those proved popular with the fans, and there is something truly unique about seeing live racing action under the lights.
As the 20th century made way for the 21st, Hollywood Park continued on, even as new gambling options and off-track wagering slowly cut into on-track attendance. Still, there was no shortage of popular Thoroughbreds, with Tiznow, Lava Man, Zenyatta and Game On Dude just some of the fantastic equines to roam the plant.
In 2005, Hollywood Park was sold to the Bay Meadows Land Company, but racing continued on for several years. The economic collapse of 2008 ironically allowed the track to continue on with live racing (the original plan was reportedly to shut it down three years after the sale if business did not improve). But Hollywood Park, just like it did after a fire burned down the grandstand in 1949, continued on, not letting the recession bring it down.
In 2013, Hollywood Park celebrated its 75th anniversary, just one year after it entered a historic naming rights contract with Betfair. The partnership was set for five years, but it didn't make it to even two. The long held fear many had about the Track of the Lakes and Flowers was made official in the spring of 2013: after the autumn meet later that year, Hollywood Park would shut its doors.
The news saddened scores of people, and the track saw an uptick in attendance over those last few months in operation, no doubt from those who wanted to come back as many times as possible before it was too late, and maybe some who wanted to see the venue for the first time.
History was made in that last spring/summer meet, courtesy of the popular gelding, Game On Dude. He conquered the 2012 Hollywood Gold Cup (which featured Chantal Sutherland as the first female jockey to win the race), and then turned around and repeated as champion in 2013, which marked the final time the Gold Cup would be held in Inglewood (it has since moved to Santa Anita). As of 2020, only Native Diver, Lava Man, and Game On Dude stand as multiple winners of Hollywood Park's most famous race.
On closing day, December 22, 2013, more than 10,000 fans showed up to Hollywood Park. That was the official count, but the video cameras gave the impression far more were in attendance. They saw an elderly man, who was at Hollywood Park from the beginning in 1938, in attendance one final time. They saw legendary actor Dick Van Patten, a longtime patron of the track, win a race as an owner. It was only fitting that someone who love Hollywood Park as much as Van Patten did would be able to see one of his horses win on closing day and be in the winner's circle. They saw California Chrome move into the record books as the final stakes winner at Hollywood Park when he won the King Glorious. And they saw the last race come down to a photo finish.
The finale was a starter allowance on the turf at 1 1/16 miles. As the field circled the course, track announcer Vic Stauffer called the action while paying homage to the track and the champions of years past. But Hollywood Park was not ready to say goodbye just yet. A photo finish kept the night going for a little while longer, and it was almost as if Hollywood Park was saying it would go out on its own terms, giving everyone something to remember it by once more.
Woodman's Luck and Corey Nakatani have the distinction of being the last horse and jockey to win in Inglewood, and with that, the track took its final bow.
Although Hollywood Park no longer stands, it lives on thanks to Youtube, newspaper archives, books, blogs, pictures, and the memories of those who visited it since 1938. In the present, longtime fans can watch Seabiscuit in action, or listen to one of longtime track announcer Harry Henson (a true Hollywood Park icon) call Swaps, Native Diver, Ancient Title or Affirmed to the wire. They can watch Ferdinand and Alysheba battle in the Gold Cup, or watch Zenyatta win every race at Hollywood Park she entered in.
That shall only continue as the 21st century progresses. Even as Hollywood Park reaches its 100th anniversary in 2038, it will still live on thanks to the love so many have for it.
Source: 2012 Hollywood Park Media Guide, pgs. 6, 7, 9, 428-430.