Hollywood Park Memories: When the Stars Came Out at Night

by | 12.18.2013 | 12:28pm
'Get Smart' star Don Adams

“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.

  • David

    Bonanza wasn’t it?

    • RayPaulick

      What a bonehead error! Thanks, David. How could I put Little Joe in the wrong TV Western? It’s corrected.

  • Mary

    Great memories, Ray. My dad drove Standardbreds, and they raced at Hollywood Park when the Thoroughbreds were elsewhere. Joe O’Brien? Wow — his finishes were so fast that people said he could pick a horse up and carry it down the stretch.

    I can also recall my parents saying that in the 1940s and 50s, when friends would come from back east, they would take them to the track — either Santa Anita or Hollywood Park — to see celebrities. You’d find more screen stars there than anywhere else in Los Angeles except a studio or a movie premier (Cary Grant, Bing Crosby and Jimmy Stewart in particular).

  • Concerned Observer

    One day I parked next to a very familiar looking guy. We talked as we walked into the track, then were seated at tables next to each other in the clubhouse as I recall. It was Vincent Edwards who played Dr. Ben Casey on TV. Nice fellow that day. Just another one of the boys. But would have been interviewed on TV at CD if attending the Derby.

  • Don Reed

    Don Adams (photo) is holding one of the very first jockey buzzer “prototypes,” developed in the late 1920s, after which it was discovered that the average jockey’s shoe size was so small, a buzzer wouldn’t fit inside of one.

  • Ellen

    My father raced the winner of the 1953 Hambletonian, Helicopter, at Hollywood Park. At that time, there were few year round options for racing at a big track, and I think Hollywood Park might have been the only one.

  • Big Red

    Just a thought to the owners of HP:
    How about selling the grandstand seats and donating the profits (labor & shipping) to various horse rescue organizations in remembrance of the horses that gave their all during the history of the track ?

    • Right then, Right now

      A nice thought, but let’s be realistic: Jack Liebau, Jerry Jamgotchian and Bay Meadows Land Co. haven’t had a benevolent thought cross their minds in decades. For them to do something CONSTRUCTIVE for horses and horsemen at this point would contradict every action they have taken collectively and individually for as long as I can remember.
      Their one and only concern: return on their investment. Make no mistake about that.

      • azeri1

        Well if no one asks nothing happens… definitely worth a try. The local rescues are so used to having to put in sweat equity that if you gave them a chance they’d probably come right on in and unbolt their own seats and cart them away! (insurance and/or waiver permitting) I know we would do that here if given the chance.

  • Jerry

    BREAKING NEWS———————————————————————————

  • Hoops and Horses

    I remember when Shelly Goudreau suffered his fatal injury because he was supposed to fly east after that card to drive the next night (8/28/’82) during International night at Roosevelt Raceway (which itself would close six years later in 1988) when the Roosevelt International was still second to only the Hambletonian in importance in Harness Racing (that International was the second of three straight won by Ideal du Gazeau, also memorable because Mystic Park, who was supposed to become the first three year old to race in the International had to scratch due to illness). Many of us in the east who followed Harness Racing knew it was likely a fatal injury, but we would not hear of his death until after that International was run.

    Goudreau’s death was in some ways the death knell for Harness Racing at Hollywood Park, especially since I believe Marje Everett wanted her “Pavilion of the Stars” to be where the finish of the inaugural Breeders’ Cup two years later would be (why the track was expanded to 1 1/8 Miles), though it was also Harness Racing’s refusal to adapt and run all races at 1 1/8 Miles at Hollywood that killed Harness Racing there as well.

  • Ben Hogan

    Ran a horse at HP one night and Tim Conway showed up in the paddock and asked my about my horse Naturally I said he would win.Ran 4th didn’t see Conway again after that.Whod a thunk it.

  • Ferdinand

    I had horses at Hollywood in the late 60s with Jack Williams. One of them was a pacer who became a minor sire in PA;the other was a champion trotter who got sick and died when we shipped him out there from Buffalo in the winter for a big race. Change in climate must have been too drastic.
    Was with Shelly at Monticello right before he died. He won their big race on Sunday, after which we spent an exciting evening at Allie Kilcoin’s.
    Next night,Shelly finished 4th in the Meadowlands Pace. Can’t remember the horses’ name.

  • Cardigan Bay

    Superb essay, Paul. I wish I could get in a time machine and go back to Hollywood when greats like Cardigan Bay, Bret Hanover and Niatrosss and “The Jiggler,” Joe O’Brien raced there.

  • greg

    I used to go to the trotters at HP 3-4 nights a week, I remember Goudreau,as well as so so many others, if you went there on Sat. morning when they had the qualifying races each race they would allow someone to sit in the pace car facing backward towards the horses, it was crazy to listen to the drivers, the starter, horses noses banging the car, just a blast. I had a box on the 1st level of seats front row at the finishline, sat there every night for probably 8-10 years, saw the same people every night, new faces on Fri/Sat. That I will miss. What there is today, I would miss an STD more

  • greg

    What does Jamgotchian have to do with this, he despises all there is to despise re CHRB etc

    • Right then, Right now

      Jamgotchian is part of the finance behind BMLC.

  • mrkeno

    i find it interesting that TVG in all their hollywood park closing coverage i never heard one mention that HP was the home of western harness for 35 years and as this article said the world record for a mile pace was broken there by the great niatross
    they praised marge everett as a great friend to horseman but se was no friend to the harness people at all. she killed harness racing at hollypark by changing the track to a 1 1/8 mile track making it basically impossible to race harness at the standard distance of 1 mile

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