Guest Blog: Tunnel Visions -- by Cynthia Holt

This is one of those essays sent to me that I had to share with my readers. Not only is it the best collection of Hollywood Park memories I’ve read, and written brilliantly, it, in many ways, brings us all back to the innocence and wonder of youth and the memories that endure through our entire lives.

On the last day ever of racing at Hollywood Park, I walked the length of the grandstand to the westernmost point of the track. The time had come to say goodbye, and I had to see if it was still there. It was. From all outward appearances, it is just an ordinary underground tunnel, at one time connecting the northwest area of the parking lot to one of the main gates. To me, it was the place where magic happened, where the weekday world of mundane Mondays and colorless Tuesdays gave way to the vibrant, larger-than-life world of racetrack Saturdays.

I remembered it as it was that special summer of 1961, when my love affair with racing began. The early 1960s were part of the glory days of Hollywood Park. Despite expansive lots, there was never adequate space to accommodate the Saturday crowd, and cars would spill on to the open field which skirted the northern portion of the property. Chartered school buses would ferry the faithful from the parking hinterlands to the admission gates.

Most of the time, my father and I would walk the considerable distance on the shady path which bordered a range of sweet-smelling sycamores. At over six feet, Dad's lanky stride made no allowance for a five-foot 13-year-old. I learned early that if I were to accompany him on these Saturday sojourns, I would have to learn to move at his speed. Skip-hopping along, I would feel the exhilaration of an afternoon of adventures to come, and would sometimes slip my hand into his, a gesture which might have felt awkward in other places. But this was the racetrack, a place like no other, where we could leave our weekday selves behind and become part of a pageantry more compelling than anything I ever knew.

My counterparts were many. I was one of the countless post-World War II baby-boomers who came to know and love racing through the mentorship of my father. Neither of us would have guessed it at the time, but that love would blossom into a life-long passion, which I would come to look upon as my father's most precious legacy. Fifty-plus years ago, members of "The Greatest Generation" were heads of families, and well-settled in suburbia. While caring deeply for their children, many of them were tight-lipped about their war-time experiences, as they were about most things which lay close to the core.

For the offspring of that generation, our fathers were revered, sometimes feared, and often remote. It was that gap which many of us longed to bridge. For me, that bridge was a tunnel. It was always cool and damp, and full of the acrid stench of cheap cigars and the fresh print of free-flying news pages. The surrounding adults seemed shadowy and strange, their voices loud and cacophonous. In a burst of light, our brief journey would end where the Saturday world began, a world of colorful flags flapping in the ocean breeze, of infield lakes the color of slate nestled among banks of brilliant blooms, all presided over by a Goose Girl, who appeared the epitome of glamour. There were barkers hawking the tip sheets of forlorn-looking men whose photos belied their promised penchant for picking winners, and the pungent aroma of popcorn and steaming hot dogs.

And then, there were the horses. At 13, I could not define beauty, grace, or majesty, but I knew it when I saw it. Their magnificence captured my heart and threw away the key. Whether humble claimer or handicap star, they were equally wonderful, and even today, their names resound in my memory like a litany of lost saints: Victory Beauty, Donut King, Darling June, Windy Sands, Sea Orbit, and Prince Blessed. I can see them still, flying past in a collision of color as a crowd of 50,000 frenetic fans responded to the cragged voice of Harry Henson, which seemed to thunder down from the heavens. I was convinced that if ever God came calling, He would sound exactly like Harry.

It was during these long and seemingly endless summer afternoons at Hollywood Park that I came to truly know and love my father. Here, Dad was able to drop the guise of strict disciplinarian and stalwart breadwinner. Fueled by a fire which had been stoked by his own father's love of the sport, Dad patiently de-coded the numerical hieroglyphics of "The Form," and explained the rituals of racing in reverential tones normally reserved for instruction in such things as the rites of holy Mass. But even more than this, somewhere in that lost period of time, when the pre-race silence was not disturbed by the din of rock bands and the distraction of simulcasts, Dad touched the past.

There were spell-binding stories of shining horses which he had known: Citation, Whirlaway, Seabiscuit, Stymie; tales of tracks which he had loved and left behind; of longshot dreams realized and disqualification nightmares endured. I would have held on to those golden summers of the 1960s—if only. If only time stood still; if only racetracks did not fall to the wrecking ball; if only fathers lived forever. The tunnel which had channeled Dad and me to our hallowed ground was now cluttered with the cast-off furniture and equipment of a dying racetrack. Discarded, broken benches lined the entryway, and an almost eerie silence prevailed. Once so full of life, this part of the track was now a useless appendage, a place which had already lost its soul.

The grandstand which had witnessed some of the most triumphant moments in racing history had fallen into a deep sleep, the silent seats whispering their stories to the ghosts of the greats which had made this sacred place their home. In the distance, announcer Vic Stauffer could be heard calling the horses into the stretch, and the snap-cracking of the whips and the jockeys' exhortations could be heard above the faint cheers from the crowd as the field faded into the echoes of a distant and more glorious past. Night merged into day as Hollywood Park's lights illuminated the track for the final time. At the opposite end of the grandstand, the patrons who had come to add one more memory to their storehouse had gathered, each heart harboring its own remembrances.

The closure of Hollywood Park marked not only the end of a splendid era in racing, but the loss of a physical connection to people and times past. I had always felt Dad's presence so strongly whenever I visited, it was as if he were walking just ahead of me with his swift stride, and that if I tried really hard, I could catch him. I saw him everywhere—in line at the windows, at the snack bar, and sitting on his "lucky" bench near the paddock. All of these places will soon be gone. But his gift remains. Hollywood Park will continue to live in my memory and in my dreams. And perhaps sometimes, the dream will be so real that it will be as it was, when I knew and loved it best, and I will walk beside Dad once again.

35 Comments

Leave a Comment:

jancatalona

Thank you for sharing.  This was a real treat.  I never had the pleasure of seeing the track, but think I have a sense of its greatness now.

28 Dec 2013 8:05 PM
saharagold

I am proud to call Cynthia my friend.  I see she has been modest about her writing talent.  She has missed her calling - it's time to write!  

29 Dec 2013 12:29 AM
casey

Cynthia- I loved reading about your memories. Hollypark will live on through your words here, and the memories that we, as fans, have.  Steve, thank you for sharing Cynthia's memories.  Beautifully written and heartfelt.

29 Dec 2013 1:37 AM
Kelso1966

This was a wonderful story of which I would bet, there are a lot more to be told. I hope we get to hear them.

29 Dec 2013 6:35 AM
ds

Ms Holt:

    I only hope and pray my children have a memory and a emotion attachment that you still have and cherish.

Wonderful expression of your memories... thanks

29 Dec 2013 8:21 AM
Danette

That was simply ... extraordinary.

29 Dec 2013 8:44 AM
txhorsefan

Wow.  This is beautiful.  Thank you so much for sharing Cynthia's blog with us, Steve, it is powerful and so filled with the emotions she has described.  Thank you, Steve and  Thank you, Cynthia.

29 Dec 2013 9:00 AM
Deltalady

You have given us all a great gift, Cynthia.  Those who were there in person during much of its history will appreciate your being able to capture the magic of Hollywood Park and put expression to their own memories.  Those of us who have come late to enjoy and love the sport, like me, owe you a debt of gratitude for helping us to understand what we missed. One thing for sure: for me, I will never be able to watch another replay of a race at Hollywood Park of so many of my personal heroes who raced there, without the imagery of you walking through that tunnel with your dad. In my minds eye, you have given me a "memory" that though I wasn't there in person, helps me to feel a tiny piece of the history of the place and make it my own.  Thank you.

29 Dec 2013 10:36 AM
RayJay

Excellent story, It left me wanting more! I hope there is more on the way.

29 Dec 2013 10:38 AM
Abigail Anderson

Cynthia: What a beautiful, beautiful text! I had never visited Hollywood Park except through the magic of virtual reality but reading this, I saw it so much more intimately through your eyes. Like you, it was family (my grandfather) from whom I heard stories of "The Great Ones" and the horse gene was clearly passed on to yours truly through the power of story and my memories of going with Grandpa to see the horses. Thank you so much for sharing. This tribute reads like poetry.

29 Dec 2013 11:23 AM
Discovery

I came to CA in the spring of 73 at the young age of 14. Walter Farley's Man O' War started my journey into the wonderful world of horse racing. As my plane flew into LAX I recall looking through the window and seeing Hollywood Park for the very first time. There was actually a race being run at the time. Once settled in I beg a family member to take me to Hollywood Park. The memories of walking through the tunnel to see my first live race is something I'll never forget. Words cannot begin to describe how I feel seeing this historic track being reduced to rubble. Thank goodness I made several drives to Hollywood Park to see Zenyatta strut her stuff. I'll always cherish seeing Affirmed charging to the wire. The fundraisers attended to help support a beloved sport. Will be with me until I meet my maker.

With that said, thank you Cynthia for sharing a wonderful article that speaks to my soul.  

29 Dec 2013 11:24 AM
Vicki B

Excellent, excellent! Cynthia really has a gift for writing. “the loss of a physical connection to people and times past,” and the rest of her final paragraph, particularly resonates with me. It is so true, experiencing memories of people and places gone. Thank-you.

29 Dec 2013 11:59 AM
El Kabong

Cynthia,

My heart goes out to you and all Hollywood Park racing fans. There is so much more to this sport, it's communities centered around them, and its structures, than most folks will ever know.

So much of what you have written awoke the deep rooted feelings I still have for my lost track and when I watched thoroughbreds race for the very last time around Longacres Park. Coincidentally, It was Gary Henson, the son of Harry, who was our announcer on that sad day. I will never forget Gary telling us all to "Listen to Their Thunder" for the very last time. Gary Henson did not call the last race, instead, he humbly watched while microphones captured the sound of the horses thundering around the oval for the very last time, a sound that we who were there will never forget.  

Cynthia, thank you for sharing, and thank you Steve for allowing such a fine tribute and forum for such a beautiful track. They are always so much more than racing and wagering establishments and don't some of us know it.

My best to Vic, I hope he lands somewhere soon. He's great for the sport.

29 Dec 2013 1:53 PM
Trotting Along

Thanks for sharing this article. I have watched many Hollywood Park races on the television during the years and never had the pleasure of being on any race track, but the eloquently written memories of Cynthia Holt has transported me there. The loss of Hollywood Park will sting for a long time to come.

29 Dec 2013 6:19 PM
Newracingfan

Thank you so much, Steve, for sharing Cynthia's beautiful words.  This is not the first time she has transported me through time to experience something I will never know first hand. I am proud to call her my friend, and I look forward with the hope that we will all see more of her eloquent work in the future. As others have said, my heart goes out to those who will feel the painful loss of Hollywood Park on a very personal level.  Cynthia - I know your Dad is exchanging "high fives" with a host of angels.

29 Dec 2013 7:18 PM
The Deacon

Gut wrenching read. The many memories I have of Hollywood Park have resurfaced these past couple weeks. It's been building up for many months now but I am so saddened by this that I can't say the words.

Well said Cynthia, in addition to those hallowed horses you mentioned let me add a few. Seaneen, Mr. Consistency, Dotted Swiss, Viking Spirit, Prove It, Colorado King, Hillsdale, Cadiz, Fleet Nasrullah, First Balcony, Winonly, Mustard Plaster, and many more which at this late moment escapes me.

We lost something special last week, our connection to the past. A connection to family, special moments of excitement and a to a time less stressful.

I know this, I won't feel same about horse racing ever again. For those of us who witnessed much of the 1950's, 1960's and 1970's these are the folks who understand what it was like.......

30 Dec 2013 4:07 AM
Melissa P

Thank you so much for sharing your wonderful memories. My heart was truly touched because my Dad and I had a special bond, too. I miss my Dad something fierce, but was blessed to be able to share my love of horses with him. I was the one who had the passion for horses, and he finally understood the depth of it when meeting our first homebred. I'd like to think that he is occasionally going over to the horsey side of heaven and giving our girl an occasional carrot or brush.

30 Dec 2013 10:32 AM
turkeyzen

I have been on both sides of the experiences related by Ms. Holt, as a racing fan whose mother owned horses and as a father whose daughter loved to go to the track. Her writing rook me back to those days and the smell of the track was in my nostrils. I can only hope that my daughter has as many fond memories of our time spent at the racetrack as Ms. Holt does. This is writing at its best.

30 Dec 2013 11:02 AM
Equitable

Have Re-Read Cynthia's piece 3 times which the one and only Steve Haskin kindly had published. What gorgeous writing. You took us there, then and now...the glory, the ghosts who still speak, the fading cheers dimming in our ears. Writing, so stirring, you'd think it alone could save HP from the wrecking ball. Thank you. And thank you Steve for sharing with us.

30 Dec 2013 11:21 AM
Linda in Texas

With the closing of every racetrack a little of each and everyone's heart fades into the scenery of our memories. Cynthia you are gifted and behind that gift of course is no doubt your dad's blessings. Touching story of The Hollywood Race Track, entertwined with the love of the horses that befalls all of us who love the sport. Thank you Steve for allowing Cynthia to be read by your fans. And Happy New Year to all the good folks old, young and still 'wet behind the ears' who love this past time known as Thoroughbred Horse Racing. And rest in peace Silver Train. Another victim of Colic as he was enroute to The U S.  Sire of J J's Lucky Train whom i followed among others. Handsome Stallion.  

30 Dec 2013 12:04 PM
Davids

Steve, Cynthia Holt's heartwarming ethnography of her introduction to the rituals, customs, art, and architecture of Hollywood Park by her father was a beautiful social anthropological study.

What was most disturbing in Cynthia's writing is that this 'society' is now as dead as any primitive culture. Memories of an ancient past are all that links and binds the bonds that once was- a thriving community. It's hard to believe that Hollywood Park is no more, a racing beacon has spluttered away to anonymity.

If I am still living in another 40 years, I wonder what will be left of the racing landscape in the USA ? I know for certain that the historical racetracks of Ascot, Chantilly, Flemington, et al will be as secure as when they were first constructed.  

30 Dec 2013 6:15 PM
Cynthia Holt

I would like to thank Steve Haskin for his generosity in providing a place for my piece to live in the world.  He is the turf writer by whom I measure all standards.  Because of him, my dream became reality.  No matter how much writing I may attempt in the future, nothing will mean more to me than "Tunnel Visions."  I know that somewhere, Dad is smiling.

I would also like to thank all of the posters for taking the time to read my story and leaving such kind remarks.  I appreciate each and every one.  The Deacon, I loved seeing the names of horses from that era in print again.  It sparked even more wonderful memories.  Mustard Plaster was a particular favorite.  

30 Dec 2013 6:44 PM
elpnut

I go back a little further than Cynthia.  I was there with my Uncle on opening day and never missed a Saturday race until my Uncle died in 1946. My daughter and her family attended closing day, and brought me back a program. (I wish I would have kept the original) I have a question that someone could help me on. As I recall, the first couple of years, the saddling ring was located under the grandstand. There was a glass enclosure where you could look down and see the horses saddled and walked. I am probably wrong about this, but I have a vivid memory of looking down and seeing the horses walking around the ring. Any help would be appreciated.

el pnut    

30 Dec 2013 7:50 PM
Paula Higgins

This was a beautifully written piece on Hollywood Park. I don't even live out there and it has saddened me that such a historic landmark could go the way of the dinosaurs. It shouldn't have happened. It was home to greats and near greats in horse racing. I hate it that it came to this.

30 Dec 2013 9:23 PM
The Deacon

Paula Higgins, I concur.............Cynthia here is a few, more hallowed names.

Find, Sledge, Windy Sea, Terry's Secret, Whodunit, Four and Twenty, Drill Site, Real Good Deal, Bagdad, Hanalei Bay, and Olden Times........I got many, many more but all I am doing is twisting the knife.

Just think if Aqueduct, Saratoga or Belmont Park closed down. All those eastern folks would have a coronary.

The whole racing world would be tossed upside down.

As a young lad I to went to the race track with my dad. Santa Anita, Hollywood Park, Del Mar (when Bing Crosby and Pat O'Brien were still alive and roaming the grounds. We even went to Caliente a few times as well as Tanforan and Bay Meadows.

I feel everone's pain.

Here is a memory, when I was 10 years old my dad and I were on our way in to bet the 9th race. The track let everyone free after the feature race. My dad was following a particular. I saw a $20 bill on the ground, a gentleman who walked past me had dropped it. I picked it and ran over to him as he was walking away and lo and behold it was L.A. Laker great Elgin Baylor.

He said thank you very much, that was very thoughtful that I would return the money. I asked for his autograph and he gave it to me. I still it to this day.

We all have so many fond memories of Hollywood park.

This is just a crying shame, Its hard to wrap my mind around this finality.

Nevertheless, Happy New Year everyone..........

31 Dec 2013 4:49 AM
Fran Loszynski

Great story Steve and to Summer Bird may your mane wisp across the winds. So handsome and will be missed. Dear son of Birdstone.

31 Dec 2013 11:23 AM
Carole Kennedy

Beautifully written as always, Cynthia. I felt I was there with you and your Dad.

01 Jan 2014 12:04 PM
Heather Seiden

What an wonderfully written piece. It so clearly comes from the heart.  I can vividly picture you and your dad enjoying a special day at the track.  

01 Jan 2014 6:22 PM
arcadiagirl

Many memories including Sat. afternoons at the races on KNXT with Gil Stratton and Joe Hernandez.  Victory Beauty. omg.  Now there is a name I had not seen in a while. Love your blog.

01 Jan 2014 7:58 PM
JayJay

I'm still not sure why HP was closed, I prefer this track over SA as far as being more friendlier to bettors, I had a nice time when I visited twice last year.  I can't say it's better than Del Mar though, speaking of which, why is Los Alamitos the top candidate to get the thoroughbred racing dates from HP instead of Del Mar ?

01 Jan 2014 8:14 PM
High Miler

Thanks for making this available, Steve.  I really loved this story.  I grew up near Hollywood Park and spent many a day there.  I was there all during the 60's and beyond, to the last day. I hope to see more from Cynthia Holt.  

02 Jan 2014 2:57 PM
sara futh

Thank you both. Only there twice,to see Crazy Kid run and to visit Zenyatta. But my dad took me to Belmont for my first visit to the track, and it is a special kind of father-daughter bond.

03 Jan 2014 5:03 PM
brigadiergerard

Bravo, Ms. Holt!  This remembrance deserves a standing ovation.  What a joy to read something as beautifully descriptive as this piece is, and so well-written.  Hats-off to Mr. Haskin for allowing all of us the opportunity to view your work.  May we look forward to another trip to the winner's enclosure in the near future?  I do hope so.

04 Jan 2014 1:41 AM
fightonfig

Dooooon't get me started, good/bad  made my first bet in

1950, $2 win (sent with my dad) on Assault, run in last

race (8th)..Alw ,,figured if he won triple crown 1946 he

could win this cond alw..............won & pay $5.40

09 Jan 2014 11:28 AM
Lise from Maine

Hi!

Beautiful story. Thanks for sharing it.

Lise from Maine

15 Jan 2014 10:51 PM

Recent Posts

Recommended

Video

Social Media

More Blogs

Archives