Shock And Awe At Hollywood Park: December 7, 1997

by | 12.07.2017 | 12:20am
On December 7, 1997, Sharp Cat breaks from the gate in a Bayakoa Stakes walkover; three horses dead-heat; jockeys and trainers share the spotlight after triple dead heat

The date of December 7 is my signpost for both of two powerful psychological responses to witnessed events. Shock and awe are two of the few emotions that immerse us in the present moment while remolding our sense of time.

Seventy-six years ago was the occasion that President Franklin Roosevelt would immortalize as the date which will live in infamy. Today, others will discuss historical details and everlasting impact of Pearl Harbor. The shock of horrific events slows down one's perception of time to the narrow focus of now and pushes aside memories and future concerns. Awe is another emotion that anchors one to the present when witnessing something that one has never experienced.

When I awoke 20 years ago today on Sunday, December 7, 1997, I expected to witness the greatness of Sharp Cat in the Grade 2 Bayakoa Handicap at Hollywood Park. I was primed to watch an exceedingly unusual match race. Bob Mieszerski's recent Los Angeles Times article was fresh in my mind as I drove to the “Track of the Lakes and Flowers” in Inglewood, Calif. He discussed the two-horse entry by Ron McAnally, four-time winner of the Bayakoa Handicap, and the possibility that only one would run. I was excited to witness my very first match race. Little did I know hours before the race that a match race would not occur or be the day's most awe-inspiring moment.

UC-Berkeley professor Dacher Keltner has studied the emotion of awe. “Awe is the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your understanding of the world,” Keltner writes. “The science is proving to be clear: Momentary experiences of awe stimulate wonder and curiosity.”

After moving to California earlier that year, Hollywood was the first West Coast racecourse that I visited and became the site of many memorable days with friends witnessing special horse racing. While being present for the Breeders' Cup earlier that autumn and subsequently watching California Chrome winning the King Glorious Stakes on the beautiful oval's final day of racing, nothing would match the moment of awe that I would experience within hours of the only walkover I've seen with my own eyes.

Keltner asks, “Why did awe became part of our species' emotional repertoire during seven million years of hominid evolution? A preliminary answer is that awe binds us to social collectives and enables us to act in more collaborative ways that enable strong groups, thus improving our odds for survival.”

The December 7 opener was the Bayakoa Handicap with the singularity of one brilliant D. Wayne Lukas trained filly recording an unrequired fast time in Hollywood Park's first walkover of 1:42.68 for 1 1/16 miles.

Less than two hours later, I am standing near the finish line at the start of the fourth race for $8,000 claimers – literally the other end of Hollywood's quality spectrum at the time.

With what began as an easily forgettable race rapidly became one that turf historians would never forget. The late Luke Krytbosch called Tina Celesta's diminishing lead to the two closers in Chans Pearl and Cool Miss Ann.

In the aftermath of the first triple dead heat at Hollywood Park in 40 years, fans quickly transitioned from the self-interested bunch trying to determine if their tickets were good to a collective pondering who dead-heated. While the placing judges and stewards worked the same question, we all became focussed in the moment to try to understand who won. At that instant, Sharp Cat became a distant memory. Although equally rare as a walkover, the triple dead heat was much more awesome.

Following what seemed like an eternity, jockeys Omar Berrio, Matt Garcia, and J. G. Matos posed with jubilant smiles in sharing history.

When watching the replay now, I feel a sense of amazement but nothing like the moment that afternoon which temporarily made me forget why most people recall the date of December 7. In short, it was totally awesome to be within a hundred feet of a triple dead heat.

Although the triple dead heat was not as significant as the one in the 1944 Carter Handicap, witnessing the rarity live stopped time in a way that no photograph could. In that instant, I was not thinking about the infrequency. I was just lost in the realization that I saw something that I had never seen or may never see again. In Thoroughbred racing, triple dead heats occur approximately five times a century. For an afternoon, 8,431 random strangers were united, socializing, and recalling the unicorn event.

Walkovers are equally rare as triple dead heats. Famous walkovers include Citation's Pimlico Special and Spectacular Bid's Woodward. While I don't have an exhaustive list of walkovers, the solo processions happen less than once in a blue moon. The anticipated certain outcome of a walkover doesn't inspire that powerful emotional response as the unexpected.

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.” – Albert Einstein

Arguably, witnessing an event in person can be more awe-inspiring than watching a recording later. While seeing it live, you are surprised by the unexpected outcome that captures your mind. I believe the triple dead heat was more impactful to those in attendance than those who watched on the 11 o'clock news. Watching shocking or awesome events are often shared with the phrase, “I watched it live.” When one makes that statement, it is understood that a unique time stopping experience was had.

“A walkover and a triple dead heat the same day,” Richard Mandella said to Bill Christine of the Los Angeles Times. “That's a million-to-one shot.” Without a doubt, I feel like a millionaire to have experienced that unifying sense of awe on December 7.

I encourage you to attend racing at the track, for you never know when time will stand still for you to be collectively awestruck.

Stu Slagle is racing secretary at Woodbine and previously served in numerous positions throughout North America's racing industry

  • Richard C

    – “There Used to Be a Ballpark” –

  • HappyHarriet

    Ouch! So poorly written I could barely get through the article. I almost took out my red pen and started marking up my computer screen.

    • Larry Ensor

      Not everybody is an English major. I try and see the forest from the trees.

      • Jon


      • Olebobbowers

        Larry Ensor, It would’ve been easier to try to separate that triple dead heat than ‘try and see the forest from the trees.’ here in Cali right now. (no pun intended…yeah, right olebobbowers)

    • Eric

      I agree. The writing is definitely “flowery” and seems designed to take up as much space as possible to make it look good. I was waiting and waiting for the explanation of why the Bayakoa turned into a match race, and the explanation never came.

    • Judoon

      Dr. Wayne Dyer famously wrote, “When given the choice between being right and being kind, choose kind.”

      Perhaps you would be a happier Harriet if you chose to be kind.

  • Larry Ensor

    The late David Cassidy and his ex-wife owned and raced the dam of Sharp Cat, In Neon. They sold her in foal to Storm Cat to John Franks. The resulting foal become Sharp Cat. and was bought as a 2 year old by The Thoroughbred Corp. The racing entity of the late Prince Ahmed. One of his first major stakes horses.

    I did a little work for Prince Ahmed. He was a really nice guy.

    • Judy Gaddis

      Nice little tidbit of info……………..thanks!

      • Larry Ensor

        Your welcome. I’ll add a little bit more to the story. The first foal of of the mare for by Summer Squall didn’t sell very well nor was much of a racehorse. Neither did several others they breed out of the mare. My research says she had 2 blank years an then had Star Recruit (89) by Al Nasr who sold for a modest price. But became a multiple graded stakes winner. Her 90-91-92 sold modestly. No foal in 93 so they decided to sell her.

        The Cassidy’s Bred her to Storm Ca in 93t but Storm Cat was not “Storm Cat” in 93. His first crop to race was in 91 and had average earnings of just $16,000+. His stud fee was a modest $20-30,000 in those days. By the end of 92 he was a leading Juvenal sire but I don’t think they raised his fee much. It was raised to the $100,000 mark until 95. A leading sire Juvi sire in 92-93 etc and then got Tabasco Cat a top 3 year old in 95.

        They offered In Neon IF to Storm Cat at the Keeneland Nov sale but was RNA for $190,000. I guess they sold her privately to the late great John Franks (another person I did some work for and was great to work with) who is the breeder of record. Mr. Franks breed and sold her next foal by Theatrical, Royal Anthem to the Thoroughbred Corp for $500,000. He went on to be a multiple graded stakes winner also.

        The Thoroughbred Corp did well buying out of this family, The 2 horses cost them $1,4 million. The 2 of them won close to $4 million. Sharp Cat was sold IF to Gone West for $3.1 million.

        In Neon only had one other foal of record after Royal Anthem (95). Her daughters have sold well as broodmares and I believe the family is still active.

        But nobody is paying me to give the rest of the story, lol. Please excuse my grammar and or punctuation. If I was being paid I would insist on having a editor also.

  • FastBernieB

    The reference in the final sentence to being “collectively awestruck” is always a possibility I guess. Personally, I was “awestruck” at age 8 when I saw thoroughbreds racing for the first time. Fast forward 60 years and the same feeling surfaces whenever I’m at the track. For me, this feeling cannot be replicated through tv or any other form of media. I often wonder if the millenials out there in this media age are able to feel the same sort of connection.

    • Judy Gaddis

      The millennials only seem to be able to connect with something (i.e. be awestruck) if it has something connected to or having to do with the internet/technology. I actually feel sorry for them. And I am damn glad I grew up in what obviously was the same generation as you!

      • FastBernieB

        I totally agree with you that we were fortunate to grow up when we did. I used to occasionally enjoy dusting off my hockey stick and joining my grandkids for some neighbourhood street hockey but all the neighbourhood kids have abandoned that pastime in favour of their cell phones and video games. Sad.

  • Michael Castellano

    The younger generations as well as my own are thankful that we had FDR, a true president, on December 7th, 1941.

  • Brian Taylor

    December 7th is also the day that NYC OTB went out of business(2010).

  • ExactaGirl

    I enjoyed your recollection of the day! Thank you!

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