Future of Calif. horse racing at risk as Hollywood Park nears finish line

Holly Bailey
Yahoo! News
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INGLEWOOD, Calif.—Christine Ryland knows all the jockeys at Hollywood Park, and they know her.

At least once a week for the last 33 years, the 78-year-old grandmother has stood at her regular spot near the tunnel where horses are led from the paddock to the race track. And that’s where Ryland was on a recent Friday afternoon, a scribbled-on race program in hand, as she smiled and offered last minute bids of encouragement to some of the waif-thin jockeys perched high upon their ponies headed to the meet.

Most of the horsemen wore stern game faces—until they saw Ryland, when a few broke into wide smiles.

“Mama!” one jockey, a man of Hispanic descent, teasingly called out to Ryland, who is black. “Why hello!” she responded, beaming.

“I have a little rapport with some of them,” Ryland said, as jockeys began to steer their horses toward the starting gate. “There will be one of them who hasn’t won a race in a while, and I’ll tease him, ‘I’m waiting on you…’ You come here so long, and you start to think of these people like family. You talk to them and know them, and they know you, even if it’s just that they just remember your face.”

But later this year, the family will be no more. In May, track officials announced Hollywood Park, located just south of Los Angeles, will close its doors for good in December to make way for a mixed-use development including retail stores, a movie theater and condos. The decision puts an end to one of the most storied tracks in American horse racing, the place where Seabiscuit won the track’s inaugural Gold Cup 75 years ago and where bets like the “exacta” and “Pick Six” that have become mainstays of racing today were first introduced.

“We are talking about a track with an incredible amount of history and tradition,” said Alan Balch, head of the California Thoroughbred Trainers Association, which represents horse owners and breeder. “It’s a sad development for many people who have so many memories there.”

The track, once a playground for old Hollywood, was founded in 1938 by studio head Jack Warner, who enlisted early investors like Walt Disney, singer Al Jolson, actor Bing Crosby and producer Samuel Goldwyn. But the days when studios sent young talent to the track to be photographed and spotted by gossip magazines have long faded, replaced by a less-glamorous era where horse racing has struggled to maintain its allure in an environment less about the sport of racing and more about gambling.

In recent years, tracks all over California have struggled to hold their own against casinos, the lottery and tribal gaming—seeing their attendance figures and wagering receipts plummet. Multiple bids to allow slot machines to be installed inside racing facilities have failed in recent years—an addition that track owners argued would have helped stabilize the industry.

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Still, many were surprised several years ago when rumors began circulating about Hollywood Park’s possible demise. The Hollywood Park Land Co., which purchased the track in 2005, said it would give the facility three years to make enough money to justify sitting on what it says is prime real estate—260 acres located three miles east of the Los Angeles International Airport.

A shaky economy and the collapse of the housing industry bought Hollywood Park a little more time—giving the track’s supporters hope that it might be saved from a wrecking ball that doomed another historic track, Bay Meadows in San Mateo. That facility, located south of San Francisco near Silicon Valley, was demolished in 2008 by the same ownership group that now runs Hollywood Park and replaced with a housing and retail development similar to what’s planned for Inglewood.

Supporters of Hollywood Park, including the owners and trainers of the nearly 2,000 horses that are stabled on its grounds year-round, appealed to the The Hollywood Park Land Co. to reconsider, but it didn’t happen. In May, Jack Liebau, the track’s president, sent a letter to the California Horse Racing Board stating it would not request any racing dates for 2014 and announced the track would be demolished after Dec. 22, it’s final racing date of the year.

“It was something that was inevitable,” Liebau told Yahoo News. “The owners made a huge effort to try and keep the racetrack from folding. ... They wanted to make money, but they weren’t able to do that, and the fallback position was developing the property. It’s probably the largest mass of property in the Los Angeles basin that isn’t developed at this point and time. And the land simply has a higher and better use than racing.”

The sentiment that the land is too valuable for racing has sent fear through California’s horse racing community, who worry other tracks around the state, which also sit on prime real estate, could also be at risk. One of the tracks most frequently mentioned as vulnerable is Golden Gates Fields just outside San Francisco, where a local newspaper columnist once mused that the best view of the city’s skyline can be found in the men’s restroom there.

To calm fears, the state Horse Racing Board recently took the unprecedented step of scheduling race dates for two years in advance—instead of the usual one-year—in hopes of projecting stability to the thousands of nervous horse owners and breeders in the state whom they worry could shift their racing focus outside of California. Officials say a mass exodus by the horse industry could damage a sport that for decades has been caught up in an intense rivalry with the tracks on the East Coast.

“What happened at Hollywood Park doesn’t make our circumstances any easier, but we are just going to have to work through it,” said Joe Morris, president of the California Thoroughbred Association. “This was a private company’s decision, and we just have to continue to focus on building up and supporting what we do have. We have strong horses, great farms. I think we're in good shape, but there's always concern about the future."

But some have questioned if the state shouldn’t be doing more to shore up the racing industry. Among other things, the state Horse Racing Board has been criticized in the past for not enforcing a law that limits private companies to owning just one track—a rule that some argued could have possibly saved Hollywood Park. But the board made exemptions to that rule starting more than a decade ago arguing it was in the better interest of the racing public to sell financially struggling tracks to interested suitors with a history in owning race tracks.

More recently, some in the industry have pushed the racing board to be more aggressive in asking track owners to upgrade their facilities—especially the ownership group of Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, just east of Los Angeles, due to it picking up 11 weeks of additional racing each year for the next two years to make up dates forfeited by Hollywood Park. Santa Anita is owned by the Stronach Group, a Canadian holding company that also owns Golden Gate Fields. Their requests came after criticism that Hollywood Park had been allowed to decline while owners made a final determination on whether to close it.

The subject came up at a state racing board meeting held last week at Hollywood Park, where board members sparred with industry officials over how much power the board actually has over track owners and how much it can influence the trajectory of racing in the state. Some members argued they didn’t have the authority to order track owners to upgrade facilities or to do more to boost the sport than it already has—a statement vigorously challenged by Balch, who pointed to a provision in state law that gives the board “jurisdiction and supervision over all persons or things having to do with the operation of horse race meetings.”

In an interview after the meeting, Balch said, “I mean, that couldn’t be clearer to me. ... The racing board has almost unrestricted authority over racing in this state. That’s tremendous authority and also tremendous responsibility. Now, granted, they don’t have super human powers, but there are certainly lots of things they can do.

"I got into sort of an argument about it, and I'm going to continue my argument about it: They aren’t powerless to influence how this goes forward," he added. "I think they should be extremely concerned.”

Several board members did not respond to requests for comment, but Mike Marten, a public information officer for the commission, insisted the entity fought for Hollywood Park to remain open and is doing everything it can to boost racing in the state. California, he pointed out, stopped charging taxes on horse racing in the 1980s in order to shore up the industry.

“The state has given up every tax dollar,” Marten said. “I don’t know how the state could do anything more.”

But as the debate rages over the future of horse racing in California, it has little impact on what’s happening at Hollywood Park—where longtime staff and patrons are still coming to grips with the idea that the track is really closing.

Earlier this month, one day before the track celebrated its 75th anniversary, a few thousand people turned out for an afternoon of racing—though many of the seats in the grandstand remained empty. It was a far cry from the crowds of nearly 70,000 that Ryland remembers seeing during her early days of frequenting Hollywood Park.

“You couldn’t even walk. It was packed shoulder to shoulder, just a sea of people,” Ryland recalled. “But that was a long time ago. There have been a lot of changes.”

Most people on that Friday were gathered in an area regulars call the “study hall,” featuring dozens of tables positioned near television monitors simulcasting races from tracks all over the country.

Upstairs, parts of the historic grandstand were eerily empty. Several bars, which featured murals of famous jockeys and stallions that raced at Hollywood Park, were vacant—already stripped of equipment like beer taps and cash registers. Dozens of betting windows in the lobby stood empty, replaced by white electronic machines where people could cast bets without talking to a human being.

In one of the open vending areas, an older woman, who did not want to be quoted by name because she feared getting into trouble, said she had been working at Hollywood Park for more than 20 years. She’s one of about 780 employees who will be out of work when the facility closes—though Hollywood Park officials say they are hopeful many will go to work for other tracks, including Santa Anita Park, which is making room for several hundred of the horses being displaced.

Asked what she will do, the woman replied, “I don’t know. I guess I’ll cry the first day, but after that, I’ll start looking for a job.”

Everywhere, people seemed to be paying their final respects to a track nobody really thought would close.

In the old betting lobby, which features paintings of Seabiscuit and other famous horses that have raced here, Gertha Knowles, 69, stood with her 13-year-old granddaughter, Dmarion. It was the second time Knowles had brought her to the track—and she was one of many kids accompanying adults that day on what seemed to be something of a nostalgia tour.

Knowles said she had been frequenting Hollywood Park on and off since 1964 when she first moved to Los Angeles from Kansas City and began following some of the famous jockeys and horses that came to race there. She said she still couldn’t believe it would soon be gone.

“I don’t understand it,” she said. “I'm really surprised because this place is such a landmark. I just thought it would be here forever.”