Hollywood Park Memories: When the Stars Came Out at Night
“Missed it by that much!”
No, I never heard Don Adams use that catchphrase after losing a close photo finish at Hollywood Park, but the star of the 1960s hit television comedy series “Get Smart” was a regular at the track – especially when the Western Harness Racing association conducted a night meeting.
As Maxwell Smart might say, would you believe Hollywood Park was a Standardbred track? It was, at least until the racing oval was expanded to a mile and an eighth in time for the inaugural Breeders' Cup in 1984. That change dealt a heavy blow to the state's Standardbred industry, relegating the action to Los Alamitos and the state fair in Sacramento. It lost the big-city environment of Los Angeles.
I discovered night racing at Hollywood Park in 1980, the year the mighty Niatross paced a then-world record mile in 1:52 1/5 before a huge crowd.
Over those next few years, I spent countless hours enjoying trotters and pacers at the Inglewood oval, rubbing elbows with celebrities and meeting racetrack characters that were unique to night racing.
Poet Charles Bukowski was a frequent gambler at Hollywood Park, even writing a poem (A Magician Gone) about the legendary driver “Gentleman Joe” O'Brien after his death in 1984.
Al Lewis, better known as Grandpa from “The Munsters” TV show, hung out with the crowd on the track apron, where you also might find actor Ed Begley Jr., whose anonymity was lost when “St Elsewhere” became a hit series in the early 1980s.
Don Adams was more of a turf club guy, and it only took one experience standing behind him in the pari-mutuels line to know he was doing his handicapping at the window. He bet a lot of combinations and was one of those horseplayers who felt like he owned the window.
Yes, he shut me out of a winner. I felt, at the time, like bopping him over the head with his shoe-phone.
Michael Landon, a youthful star of “Bonanza” and later “Little House on the Prairie,” had a stable of harness horses with Roger Stein in the 1980s. When he died so young from pancreatic cancer at the age of 54, it felt the same as losing a friend. He was just one of the guys.
Hollywood Park at night was where I met characters who could have starred in the HBO series “Luck” as down and out horseplayers. They had nicknames like Tiny, Rhino, Binocular Bud, the Mailman, Fingers and the Bell Ringer. They'd gather early each night and share “stories” – which horses were live and, just as important, which ones weren't.
Three-time champion and Hall of Famer Rambling Willie, a legend in the Standardbred world, was the biggest star I saw at Hollywood Park, but the winner of 128 races in 304 lifetime starts came up short that night after his trainer and driver, Bob Farrington, had the whip fly out of his hand just as the horse was making a move.
The saddest night, by far, was Aug. 27, 1982, when leading driver Shelly Goudreau bailed out of the sulky after the bit broke and he lost control of the horse he was driving. The charismatic Canadian fell awkwardly, striking his head on the track. He was rushed away to a nearby hospital for surgery but the damage to his brain was severe. Six days later, he died.
So, too, will Hollywood Park, but those night-time harness racing memories will live on forever.