Hollywood Park Memories: You Never Forget the First One
As Hollywood Park enters the home stretch of its 75-year run in Southern California, Paulick Report publisher Ray Paulick and editor-in-chief Scott Jagow are sharing some personal memories of their experiences at the Inglewood oval known as the Track of Lakes and Flowers.
My relationship with Hollywood Park (and for that matter, horse racing) began with a break-up.
It was the first Saturday in May, 2005. I awoke in my new Hollywood apartment, having moved out that week from the one I shared with my ex-girlfriend. We had one of those constantly rocky relationships that drag on far longer than they should, and while emotionally battered, I felt relieved to be on my own again.
Newly-single in Los Angeles on Kentucky Derby day, I figured the only logical thing to do was pull a Charles Bukowski and head for the racetrack, a place I’d never been. I stuck a rolled-up copy of the LA Times under my arm, hopped in the car and headed for Hollywood Park, which it turned out was nowhere near Hollywood.
Close to an hour later, I pulled into the massive parking lot, as an LAX-bound jumbo jet screeched low overhead. The plane could’ve parked next to me, I thought, as I found a space in the subset of the lot actually being used. I walked with a sense of freedom and anticipation toward the imposing structure rising up before me. Little did I know, as the turnstile churned forward, that this place would change my life.
Inside, the concourse bombarded my senses – the wafting of hot dogs and beer, the scribbling of pencils on forms and programs, the herding and shouting of small packs of men craning their necks at TV monitors. The scene was energized, and so was I.
I had no idea where to begin, but I knew I wanted in on the action right away. I made bets on a couple of races taking place in Toronto or New York or wherever they were. The completely uneducated wagers didn’t come in, but boy was it fun to watch the horses run for my money up there on the TV screen.
As the on-track card got underway, I plopped down in a seat upstairs, relaxed by the Southern California sun and breeze, and soaked up the stunning blue and green and brown that consumed my view. As the first horses hit the stretch, and I joined in the imploring chorus around me, I thought “this is one helluva way to spend an afternoon.”
Midway through the card, the crowd thickened around the nearby bar as the Kentucky Derby was set to go off. I don’t even recall who I bet with my first official Derby wager, but I know it wasn’t 50-1 Giacomo, and judging by the baffled grunts of the souls elbow-to-elbow with me, they didn’t pick him either. Joyful shrieks off in the distance suggested someone must have, though.
I threw up my hands and shared knowing glances with those around me, already feeling like I was part of something I recognized – the kind of feeling you get when you meet a stranger you think you’ve known your whole life.
With the card down to the finale, I strolled to the teller for one last wager. I gave the woman my (random) selections, and she told me I could box them in a trifecta for $6. What the hell. I watched the last race from the sloping apron, where only a few, mostly weary-looking patrons remained among the strewn programs and racing forms.
The next few moments were an exhilarating blur as my horses zipped across the finish line 1-2-3, triggering a $400 payout. That was it. Horse racing had just sunk its teeth into me.
As I look back now, having learned how to handicap (and that winning isn’t so easy), having read dozens of books on the sport, moved cross-country, gone to school for equine business, and changed careers to get into the racing industry, perhaps it could’ve have been any track that day. Maybe I would’ve had the same experience at Santa Anita or Del Mar or some small track in the middle of nowhere.
Certainly, having now been to locales like Royal Ascot, The Curragh, Sha Tin, Happy Valley, and many prominent tracks in this country, I’ve discovered views more beautiful, venues more sparkling, and experiences more fulfilling.
But Hollywood Park, she was the first. And no matter how many new and better relationships come along, no matter how many beginnings and endings push it further into the past, the first one always stays with you until the end.