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.