Hollywood Park closed its doors in December 2013 and blogger Julie June Stewart was there to say farewell to the track during its final weekend (Photo courtesy of Julie June Stewart).
Life is a series of losses and it has been my experience that everyone deals with loss differently. On my recent trip to L.A., my heart went out to a little girl dressed in pink dragging her little roll-away suitcase at the Portland airport. She had tears streaming down her face and her jaw was clenched in a tight square. Her mom was explaining, “we don’t have time to go back and find where you lost it. We’re going to miss our flight and we have to leave now.” I watched her wondering what she lost and if it was her first experience losing something. No matter the size of a loss, it’s a tough lesson. And I dreaded facing the finality of closing weekend at the iconic Hollywood Park racetrack after 75 legendary years.
The first thing I noticed at the Turf Club entrance was a bed of dead and dying flowers. The bright orange marigolds were withering away with dry leaves surrounding single wilting blooms. The remaining flowers in bloom, along with the shrubs and trees, are still beautiful and grace the track unaware that their time in the sun is over, which is very ironic for a track once world renowned as the “Track of Lakes and Flowers.”
I’m struck by the variety of emotions I saw during the closing weekend at Hollywood Park. The first person I met was a gentleman in the parking lot who gave me his theory that it will not be torn down and I wanted to believe him. Lots of folks are still clinging to hope that a savior or solution is going to appear. Even a TV crew was walking through the grandstands trying to get groups of people to chant “Save Hollywood Park!”
Many of my horse racing friends have told stories of coming to the track for the first time with their families. They cherish their stories of the famous horses and jockeys they saw when they were young. I saw lots of kids at the track closing weekend. They were adorable! Many were sporting goggles they received from their favorite jockeys. Others were wearing snazzy fedoras. I smiled as I watched them cheer for the TV cameras and thought of the stories they could tell 50 years from now (in 2063!) when they can proudly say, “I was there with my parents for the closing of Hollywood Park.”
In a very tender moment, a middle-aged man gently led his father to the parking lot. I recognized the look on the older man’s face. He was tired and probably experiencing sensory overload from such an emotional weekend. His son held his arm and said “not much farther to go, dad” as they walked slowly and methodically away from the track. I am guessing that it was probably full circle for them as Dad might have brought his son to the track years ago and now the son brought his Dad for one last look.
The jockeys had on their game faces, and the owners carried hope in their hearts that on this historic day they would be in the winner’s circle. Some of the younger horses reared and misbehaved while others comported themselves with professionalism and a journeyman like attitude. Security was beefed up and necessary. There was also a lot of anger rolling around. Saturday night a man lost his temper when the track was out of programs. This was repeated Sunday when the track was out of beer and hotdogs. Some folks were livid while others have an everlasting well of resiliency and are scrambling for new jobs and new opportunities. Many people in the racing industry are blessed with survival skills. I heard more than one jockey yell out “see you at Santa Anita” to an owner as they hustled back to the jockey’s room after the race. Trainers are making plans to move horses and offices are being cleaned out. The auction signs are up on the door stating clearly that it’s all going to be sold.
JULIE JUNE STEWART OUTSIDE THE HOLLYWOOD PARK PADDOCK
The audience waned as the sun set. Perhaps they couldn’t face the emotion of saying good-bye. The modest Christmas decorations almost seemed a mockery. It was hard to wish the folks who worked there a “Happy Holiday” when they were facing unemployment within hours.
All the music played on closing day had extra meaning. When trumpet player Jay Cohen skillfully wove “Auld Lang Syne” with “Hooray for Hollywood”, it was time for tears. Then Etta James wailed “At Last” though the sound system and the crowd jostled their way from the walking ring to watch the final race.
In a way, it was better that the final race was under the cloak of darkness. It might have been too painful to say goodbye to the Track of Lakes and Flowers as the sun gaily shined. Ironically, the back light from the track served to highlight the local seagull flock as they circled the grandstands. Sounds of “look out” and “heads up” shattered the final post parade as the seagulls bombed the audience with a steady rain of poop.
The black night kept us from resting our eyes on the ducks and geese playing in the lake or admiring one final time the two flamingos that had eluded capture. The darkness hid the backside and the palm trees became silent sentinels to history. It will all be torn up. It will all be sold. Each piece will be little shards of shrapnel that used to give us happiness. But we stood to witness one final race.
Vic Stauffer gave a call for the history books honoring the great legends of Hollywood Park. The crowd strained to hear every word of his call. “As they turn past the barns for the final time, stables that have housed racing immortals like Seabiscuit, Citation, Swaps and Native Dancer, Affirmed, John Henry, Lava Man and Zenyatta.” Suddenly you could hear the horses coming and the crowd cheered loudly. Stauffer’s voice continued as he bravely pushed on through emotion and said, “They turn into the final stretch past the lakes and flowers! From 1938 to 2013; a final eighth of a mile; 75 years down to 12 seconds. A photo finish! Seventy-five great years at Hollywood Park and that’s a wrap.”
And it is wonderfully a photo finish! The crowd waited as the horses and jockeys returned. It’s the California-bred Woodmans Luck and that feels right. A phalanx of media and fans embrace Corey Nakatani, and Hollywood Park security desperately attempted to keep the final winner’s circle photo from becoming a free for all because everybody is trying to say they belong in the photo. But there is no extra ceremony, no pomp or circumstance. No farewell to the fans, fireworks or flowers. The winning photo is simply taken and it’s over.
The worst is yet to come. Closing weekend was like attending a wake. It was a chance to remember and tell stories. It will be painful as the mementos of Hollywood Park are parceled out during the auction. And yet, the most painful moment will be when the heavy equipment moves in to tear the place down. High-reach excavators, cranes, dump trucks, jackhammers, loaders and bull dozers will take away the track of lakes and flowers piece by piece.
Security had its hands full. Fans desperately sought meaningful souvenirs to bring home. People stood on garbage cans and attempted to liberate the Hollywood Park pennants. Plaques that marked the various boxes in the grand stands were pried off and tucked away. One man proudly stated in the elevator that he had secured eight leather-bound menus. A nimble young woman dashed away from security holding a “Restroom” sign as the crowd cheered. The security guards at the exit had a small mountain of items they had taken away from folks. One man walked up to the exit dragging a chair from the boxes and security reminded him that it would all be sold at the auction and he could not leave the premises with a chair.
Enterprising people created meaningful souvenirs. There is one person that I could have applauded. She was going up the stairs to the grandstands when she stopped and started pulling on some of the vines covering the stairwell. She looked at me and smiled saying, “I am going to try to start these at home.” That felt perfect to me, thinking that perhaps something from the track of lakes and flowers will continue.
Perhaps she will take her children to the track someday and tell them that the plants in the backyard came from the legendary Hollywood Park racetrack. It was a beautiful land where flowers bloomed, the flamingos basked in the sun and airplanes flew overhead. A land where horses became immortal and jockeys became famous. Like the little girl who lost something special at the airport, I left feeling like I had left something behind. And in a way, we all did. And despite the loss, Hollywood Park’s rich history now belongs to all of us to remember and cherish.
SAYING GOODBYE TO HOLLYWOOD PARK
Slideshow images courtesy of Eclipse Sportswire