Hollywood Park Memories: You Never Forget the First One

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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.

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  • Billy

    Forget IQ and SAT tests, they should give your first day experience as a sign of intelligence. You obviously would’ve scored highly.

  • Quilla

    Suffolk Downs, mid-1960s, before kids were allowed and we had to write to the track president to let us in. A special thank you to a mud-brown Bimelech gelding – Hy-Nat – a one-time stakes placed runner in a cheap claimer that day who gave me my first win.

    • Don Reed

      The same for “Built-Up,” at Gulfstream, a horse whose inability to quit resulted in the stewards examining the finish-line photograph for what seemed an eternity before they finally made their decision.

      The winner of the race was 100-1.

  • Don Reed

    “Hollywood Park Memories: You Never Forget the First One”

    For those of us who only got there after it was falling apart (whose idea was it to paint the interior walls, “urine yellow”?!), that headline is accurate.

  • PaulieWalnuts

    Pimlico in 1987, Desormeaux had his bug and was winning with 3-legged dogs. Last race of the day, cheap maiden claimers and Kent is on One Tough Kid, several starts and I don’t think he’d beaten a horse. The horse would’ve been 10/1 if not for The Kid but we emptied our very thin wallets (I think we had around $60 between the two of us) and Kent brings him home at 8/5. I cashed my first ticket, we felt like kings, stopped and ate a big meal on the way home, WOW what a day. I always remember my first time.

  • Chris Lowe

    Memorial Day 1964 Finger Lakes. My parents, two brothers, and myself among 12,000 others(huge crowd for the Thumb, Funny Cide drew 11,000 for his swan song) I was struck by the power and pageantry, even at the age of six.
    Splitting show bets with my mum at age 12, going to the window myself at sixteen( No, never got carded!) and hitting a $90 DD.
    Last child at home my folks and I considered hitting nearly every track in the Mid-Atlantic a vacation:

    Charles Town, Waterford(MTR), Monmouth, Penn National, Timonium, Beulah, River Downs, Churchill(Never for the Derby, though,), Rockingham Park(RIP), Narragansett(ditto).
    Only seeing the greats in person when they ventured to the OTHER upstate NY track:
    Kelly Kip, Groovy, Safely Kept, Angel Cordero Jr., Pat Day, Steve Cauthen, Funny Cide (with Alan Garcia along for the ride.)
    Some greats you may or may not have heard of:
    Fio Rito, Les Hulet, North Prospect(freaky fast NY-Bred who was a Texas stallion for a time) Kevin Whitley, R.W. Cook(who I swear never seemed to lose if he turned into the stretch with the lead), Sagely and Silver Fir, who both won multiple races at the age of FOURTEEN!
    I have not been to a track in person since ’08, but boy oh boy I still have the memories for when and why I got hooked.

  • Bob Fasching

    My dad’s one and only stakes winner was at Hollywood Park Thanksgiving Day 1984. Good as Diamonds with Rafael Meza up. I was 9.
    They can tear the place down, but I have a photo in my office that will remind me of that day the rest of my life.

  • jponyplayer

    Roosevelt Raceway 1962. I was 17, in HS. One of our pals overheard his dad talking on the phone about a “live one” at RR that night. We piled in somebody’s station wagon and went to the track to bet on this nag who of course won and paid $85. I had never seen a $100 bill no less have one in my pocket!!…Wait, it gets better. The next day we all played hookey from school and drove to Aqueduct for more action. NASA successfully launched a rocket that same morning and there was a horse in the 6th race appropriately named “Big Red Rocket” You can guess the rest, I was hooked bad and I still love it.

  • johnthekiwi

    Stinking wet day at Pukekohe racetrack and rain locked in all over New Zealand. Dragged there by some mates because it was half-price beer all day. Off track Sweet Fox looked like a get out play (40-1). Put my 5 EW on her and sure as hell she romped through the slop. I was hooked. The following week I played a blind treble (Pick 3) for $36 and collected $850 or so. I shoulda quit then…:-)

  • powaymojo

    My first was April 1967, at HOL. My first live race was at SA the day before the FIRST Super Bowl. (Yes, I am old.)

    Many memories working on the backside at HOL. (It will NEVER be BHP to me, or whatever the hell they call it now.)

    I watched Secretariat win the Belmont, in my tack room, at Barn #, can’t remember. I was there the day Joe Hernandez received his to be fatal kick by a horse. Forever in love with the Diver.

    A beautiful place, in its day. Now with canned fan cheering? Really?

    HOL RIP.

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