Dick Van Patten’s eyes welled up as he stepped out of line at the Hollywood Park Turf Club will-call window early Sunday afternoon and approached the woman across the way who was taking admission tickets.
“Dickie!” she exclaimed as she saw the 85-year-old actor slowly came over.
“I just wanted to tell you how much I’m going to miss you,” Van Patten said to her.
Just about two hours later, there was Van Patten, coming down from his front row seat in Section 31 to take his rightful spot in the tracks’ winner’s circle with a sheepish grin.
The filly he co-owns, Tanquerray, made up five lengths with about a quarter mile left in the third race and, urged on by Corey Nakatani, blew past favorites Highly Rated and PrettyPriceyGirl for the victory by almost a length. It paid off at $12.60.
Those kind of conflicting emotions seemed to best frame the final day of thoroughbred racing at Inglewood track.
Sentimentality swirling with a building frustration, temporarily distracted by a winning exacta ticket. Or by someone renewing their wedding vows by the track chaplain. Or by a ceremonial flyover.
Oh, right, that’s just another 838 double-deck airbus approaching LAX.
It was a combination of a wake and a wake-up call. Except it was too late to act upon anything that could make things right again.
The more people mingled around in the shade of the stadium seat overhang, waiting in lines longer than usual for a Coke, a hamburger and whatever comfort food could be purchased, the more the conversations kept turning to things like:
Thanks for showing up to see the bittersweet end, but what took you so long? Why couldn’t this place attract a crowd like this on a regular basis? Because there was a stigma attached to it?
If knocking it all this down to build a multi-part residential community called Hollywood Park Tomorrow makes the most dollars and sense at this point, how come you could drive just up the street on Prairie Ave. — also known as The Avenue of the Champions – and see construction workers putting the final touches on a brand new Forum that’s going to re-open next month for world-class concerts?
The most troubling thing to get your head around in this whole scenario is that it’s not as if a team is abandoning a facility to move into something bigger and better. That, we’ve seen before, and can in some ways internalize better.
This is a place that is simply going away.
Could the citizens of Inglewood have stood up to make it stay? Kind of like when Walmart wanted to build a new superstore near the park, but voters turned it down in record numbers?
Hollywood Park didn’t die of natural causes. It was because someone supposedly more level-headed dug their mercenary claws into it and decided it had to be leveled.
As a result, all those who appeared on this final long goodbye Sunday just to be part of the going-away party – many were finally let in free after 2 p.m. when the lines just became too long for the $10 general admission – were only drawn by a foolish pleasure.
Some, like Van Patten, could justify their appreciation for wanting to be there. There was a hand-made sign hanging over the railing next to those recalling some of the great races of the past that said: “Rudy, 75 Yrs @ H.P. #1 Fan” with an arrow pointing up to his seat.
Patrons were pulling out their smart phones and taking selfies in front of the Swaps statue. They crammed into the gift shop trying to take advantage of the 50 percent sale on everything that was left – somehow we landed a $5 Mike Smith bobblehead amidst the fray.
It just made little sense that on a day when many Southern Californians headed out to do some major last-minute Christmas shopping, Hollywood Park finally bought the farm.
“It’s really an historic day for sports, period, whether you’re a horse racing fan or just a sports fan,” Paul Lo Duca, the former Dodgers catcher who has fashioned himself as a horse racing analysis for the TVG network, tried to explain it.
“I tweeted out something earlier today about how people may not realize how the camaraderie of the race track community can be. When I got traded from the Dodgers to the Marlins, (it’s the) same feeling that I have today. The people you walk in, who park your car, who you say hi to every day, those are the people you’re going to miss.”
So we’ve got our copy of the final program. And the Daily Racing Form with the cover story “Goodbye, Hollywood.” What does that and a $2 bet get us now?
Among the history we have with the track is coming out to hear The Police perform on the infield during “The Synchronicity Tour” 30 years ago in an awkward configuration that could never be replicated. And we weren’t lost on the irony connecting that with seeing Zenyatta winning her final race there in 2010.
But that said, we couldn’t bring ourselves to stick around for the very last race, something called The Auld Lang Syne, where a dozen horses went off under the lights and thickening marine layer. We had seen all history that we supposed to see by then. Let track announcer Vic Stauffer say it best as he finished his call of that 11th race photo finish win by Woodmans Luck: “That’s a wrap.”
For those remaining Hollywood-
types like Van Patten who stuck it out, 75 years is apparently enough for Hollywood Park.
It will rest in pieces. An auction will be coming up soon to disperse its treasures. The remains of Native Diver will be shipped to Del Mar. Most of the flamingos from the infield track have been sent to a zoo in Atascadero.
With that end, we offer up a toast: To winning wagers on Willie Shoemaker, getting carried away in the seats where Cary Grant was granted access, and to those two flamingos left floating around on the infield lake that don’t want to leave.
Or, as hornblower Jay Cohen played it when he called the horses to the first post Sunday: Thanks for the memories.