Welcome to Hollywood Park. (Photo: Courtesy Los Angeles Public Libary)

And they’re off! Horse and jockeys take off from the starting gates at Hollywood Park.
(Photo: Courtesy Los Angeles Public Libary)

After 75 years, Hollywood Park, the horse racing track in Inglewood will run its final live race on Dec. 22. Ever since the first Hollywood Gold Cup championship race was won by the legendary Seabiscuit in 1938, the track has been home to some of the sport’s best known horses and many of Hollywood’s biggest stars. It was founded by Warner brothers Jack and Henry, along with 600 shareholders many of whom also worked in the entertainment industry. The Walt Disney Co. was an original shareholder. Bing Crosby, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, and even Ronald Reagan owned thoroughbreds and were regulars at the park.

In 1936 Hollywood Park was a swampy bean field in Inglewood. But Jack and Harry Warner saw the land as an ideal spot for horse racing. There was already a track in Arcadia called Santa Anita, but the management there was not welcoming to Jews. The track was more than a place where you went to watch the horses run – deals were made, the elite rubbed elbows with one another – you might call it early networking. So the excluded Jewish entertainment moguls gathered up some investors and transformed empty land a racetrack that was open to them.

From opening day on June 10th, 1938, Hollywood Park was a place to be seen. If you were a movie star and you wanted to be in a Warner Brothers picture it was a good idea to show your loyalty to the studio by playing the horses at Hollywood Park.

And horse racing was the most popular sport in America then. When Seabiscuit raced War Admiral in 1938, forty million people listened to the race on the radio. Even the president to the Unites States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, stopped a cabinet meeting to listen.

And for over a decade, Hollywood Park had the highest attendance records of any track in the country. It remained popular right up to the 1970’s, when the glamor started to wane.

“I think my generation was where it started to unravel,” says Nason Smith, a gravel-voiced former regular at Hollywood Park. His dad was a bookmaker, taking bets illegally on the side. “The track in the 70s was a much seedier place,” says Nason.

The writer Charles Bukowski was also a regular at the track. In a column he wrote for the underground newspaper Open City, he described it this way, “The horses look the same and the people a little worse. The horse player is a combination of extreme conceit, madness and greed.”

Today, Hollywood Park isn’t so much seedy as it is empty. Attendance rarely tops 5,000. There’s a lot of theories about why the sport is in decline. You can bet online now. And with 30 minutes between each race there’s a lot of down time – unlike football, baseball and Nascar where the action is constant. People don’t seem to value pageantry the way they used to.

“There’s a certain poetry and beauty to the horses that is like no other sport,” said Nason. “It’s disappearing.”

“Everyone is moving on. Times change and that’s what’s happening,” said Hollywood Park president Jack Liebau. When a 2004 initiative to bring slot machines to Hollywood Park failed, there wasn’t much of a chance of the park staying open, Liebau explains, adding, “I’d say we’re marginally profitable. But the profit isn’t sufficient to sustain the operation because the land is just too valuable.”

Hollywood Park sits on a tremendous amount of land. There’s the sprawling infield dotted with palm trees, the grandstand, the massive parking lots that surround it, plus the backside stables. “There’s 260 acres of land here,” Liebau says. “It’s the largest undeveloped site really in the Los Angeles Basin.”

After the grandstands and the stables are leveled, the historic race track will be turned into a $2-billion mixed use development with nearly 3,000 residential units, office, retail, a hotel and two lakes.

Most regulars aren’t terribly heartbroken by the news that Hollywood Park is closing. Santa Anita isn’t too far away, and the Hollywood Park Casino, located next door, is staying open. It’s being renovated and will expand its off track betting facility for the thousands of gamblers who spend their weekends glued to the TV sets that broadcast races from around the country.

At the final horse race at Hollywood Park on Dec. 22, bugle player Jay Cohen will walk onto the track, bring the bugle to his lips and play the call to the post one final time. Then, he says, he’ll play Auld Lang Syne and, finally, Hooray for Hollywood.

 

Full stands at Hollywood Park (Photo: Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library)

Full stands at Hollywood Park The grandstand at Hollywood Park Racetrack Looking over the spectators to the track. The master plan was designed by architect Stile O. Clements and landscape architect Edward Huntsman-Trout.
(Photo: Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library)

A handful of gamblers emerge from the grandstands to watch the next live race. (Photo: David Weinberg)

A handful of gamblers emerge from the grandstands to watch the next live race. (Photo: David Weinberg)

HPSeabiscuit

Seabiscuit is shown in the winner’s circle after winning the initial running of the $50,000 Hollywood Gold Cup race on July 18, 1938. George Woolf is the jockey, with his owner, Charles S. Howard, and Anita Louise paying homage to the great champ. (Photo courtesy: Los Angeles Public Library)

An aerial view of the park. (Photo courtesy: Los Angeles Public Libary)

An aerial view of the park in its 1968. (Photo courtesy: Los Angeles Public Library)

The view from the roof of Hollywood Park. (Photo: Daivd Weinberg)

The view from the roof of a near-empty Hollywood Park. (Photo: David Weinberg)

The once glamorous race track is a different place today. A family watches waits for alive race, behind them an overturned garbage can. (Photo: David Weinberg)

The once glamorous race track is a different place today. A family watches waits for a live race, behind them an overturned garbage can. (Photo: David Weinberg)

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10 Comments »

  • Carrie said:

    Personally, I think Inglewood has gotten such a bad reputation for danger and gangs that going there specifically to bet on horses loses its allure. "Going to the Track" in itself is not really the most classy of things to do, but when you drive there in fear, it changes the whole experience to driving to the bad part of town to do bad things.

    When I go to Del Mar, It is beautiful and the allure of opulence and fancy dresses exists. HJollywood Park is in a slum..the guilt of betting the last of your funds and losing it all becasue you are a gambling addict is what the vibe is there.

  • Nancy Gregory said:

    Exactly, who's going to want to live or shop in a place so described? NO ONE! It's not just a shame, it's fraud to talk about billions being invested in housing and shops, especially with a gambling CASINO in the midst. Talk about "seedy!" There will be accommodations for about 600 people in the casino and there are about 1,500 to 2,000 people a day who attend the "Off Track Betting." Maybe there will be a giant Walmart (now that it is zoned for commercial use). The polulation of The City of Inglewood can't vote against it as they did once, as The Bay Meadows Land Co. can sell or rent to anybody they want to! Oh, well – just another costly mistake for a City that is known for its violence and corrupt business dealing.

  • Anja said:

    I have been to Hollywood Park several times with my family and still have many nice memories about it. It's a pity, that it will be closed soon.

  • Marlene said:

    I grew up just miles from Inglewood and Hollywood Park. I can remember in the late 50's and 60's that it was quite the place to be with many Hollywood starts in attendance. It is sad to hear how the park has fallen on hard times. It used to be a truly magical place.

  • 2013: L.A. Rang in the Changes — of Character | Design & Architecture said:

    […] Office Tower, Irv’s Burgers, Bahooka Family Restaurant and, most poignantly, Inglewood’s Hollywood Park (shown in its heyday in photo courtesy Los Angeles Public Library.) Mention the demise of the […]

  • Temmy Memmy said:

    These photos of saying goodbye to Hollywood Park are very inspiring and as people say pictures speak itself, so these pictures also speaking the inspiration and passions for Hollywood Park.
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  • obat herbal said:

    I want to say that this article is amazing, great written and come with almost all important infos. I would like to look more posts from you.

  • barbara manley said:

    It is with great sadness that I read about the demise of Hollywood Park. I too attended in the 50's when it was a classy place. Women and men dressed to the nines, movie stars, and many horses and jockey's became famous. I moved away but I have heard that the area is unsafe and run down. Shame, shame shame on the people that did that to a once beautiful little town.

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