Horse rac­ing needs a big f in­ish

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - BILL DWYRE

Amer­i­can Pharoah tries to end Triple Crown drought six days af­ter the de­mo­li­tion of Hol­ly­wood Park.

EL­MONT, N.Y. — We are ap­proach­ing the 147th run­ning of the Bel­mont Stakes, horse rac­ing’s most re­cent at­tempt at find­ing its Foun­tain of Youth. If Amer­i­can Pharoah fi­nally gets a Triple Crown for the sport, they can erect a statue of Ponce de Leon in the in­field.

Some­times, rac­ing feels more like a gi­ant con­tra­dic­tion than a com­mon­sense equine ath­letic en­deavor.

The regular rac­ing pro­gram Thurs­day at Bel­mont Park drew dozens. With a huge mo­ment only 48 hours away, you needed to find some bee­hives to get any buzz.

They built this place for mam­moth days — by one cal­cu­la­tion, you could fit 48 foot­ball fields into the in­field — and they will get one Satur­day.

But the thrill of an­tic­i­pa­tion and the agony of

cav­ernous si­lence are hard to rec­on­cile.

Thurs­day, the most ex­cite­ment came when a filly named Tonasah tossed her rider, Javier Castel­lano, in the pa­rade to the gate for the third race, and it took out­rid­ers nearly 10 min­utes to cor­ner her and clear the track.

That left the race, which had a $250,000 purse, with just four horses — all lightly tested and un­pre­dictable 2-year-old ba­bies. It also prob­a­bly left gam­blers won­der­ing what was the point.

As the big head­lines for the up­com­ing Bel­mont stand dark and dom­i­nant, the sport’s gray ar­eas con­tinue to cast shad­ows. For ev­ery Bob Baf­fert quote and sin­cere ef­fort of those in­volved in this al­most-des­per­ate at­tempt for the sport’s 12th Triple Crown win­ner, there may be a cor­re­spond­ing sad mem­ory of what hap­pened in the same week as Amer­i­can Pharoah’s quest.

On Sun­day at 6 a.m., they brought down the grand­stand at Hol­ly­wood Park. Im­ploded it in less than 20 sec­onds.

It was built in 1938, then re­built in 1950 af­ter a fire the year be­fore.

It had been the work­place and play place for equine stars and hu­man stars. For ev­ery Na­tive Diver, Lava Man and Zeny­atta run­ning, there was a Jimmy Ste­wart, El­iz­a­beth Tay­lor and Cary Grant watch­ing.

The essences of Breed­ers’ Cups and Hol­ly­wood Gold Cups and Marje Everett and R.D. Hub­bard and Harry Ornest and Bill Shoe­maker and Laf­fit Pin­cay Jr., and hun­dreds of oth­ers were shred­ded into obliv­ion with five or six pops of ex­plo­sives. The grand­stand went down, left to right as the cam­eras faced it look­ing west.

It folded in sec­tions, much as many in rac­ing fear their sport is.

For years, John Shirreffs trained his horses there. It was home. It was where he pre­pared Gi­a­como for his stunning Ken­tucky Derby victory in 2005, at 50-1 odds. It is where he had Zeny­atta hot walked, of­ten as much as two hours a day, to con­trol her en­ergy so she would be on her best be­hav­ior for the dozens of vis­i­tors that came to pet her nose ev­ery day, as she be­came the most fa­mous horse in the world.

Shirreffs’ en­tire op­er­a­tion is here now. He has two of the now 11-yearold Zeny­atta’s foals, Cozmic One and Zi­conic, in train­ing. But part of him, like so many in rac­ing from South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, re­mains at Hol­ly­wood Park.

“I did see it [the im­plo­sion] on the com­puter,” Shirreffs said. “I un­der­stand that change is in­evitable, but I don’t know if Hol­ly­wood Park ever re­al­ized what it meant to the peo­ple living nearby and work­ing there.

“There were 1,500-2,000 horses sta­bled there. It took at least two peo­ple per horse to take care of them. And it gave peo­ple who were just com­ing to this coun­try a chance to get em­ployed, to get their feet on the ground.

“A lot of th­ese peo­ple saved their money and sent their kids through col­lege. I wish some­body would have con­sid­ered their wel­fare.”

Hub­bard sold Hol­ly­wood Park in 1999 for $140 mil­lion to Churchill Downs. Six years later, Churchill sold it to a land man­age­ment com­pany. The named de­scrip­tion of the new buyer made the fu­ture ob­vi­ous. Also ob­vi­ous was the mo­ti­va­tion for the sale. Bay Mead­ows Land Com­pany paid Churchill $257.5 mil­lion for the Hol­ly­wood Park prop­erty.

Horse rac­ing had de­cided its fu­ture had a price.

Two years ago last month, the ap­pointed Bay Mead­ows tran­si­tion guardian, Jack Liebau, an­nounced that rac­ing would end with the win­ter meet­ing of 2013. His an­nounce­ment in­cluded the now fa­mous dag­ger into the hearts of horse­men: “The land now sim­ply has a higher and bet­ter use.”

On the last day of rac­ing, Dec. 22, 2013, a 2-year-old named Cal­i­for­nia Chrome won the King Glo­ri­ous Stakes.

This week’s cov­er­age of Hol­ly­wood Park’s de­mo­li­tion re­flected the cur­rent me­dia’s gen­eral to-hell-with-yes­ter­day-and-hurry-up-to-to­mor­row ap­proach to all things. No horse­men were in­ter­viewed. Only Rams fans, await­ing their new sta­dium.

“This is ab­so­lutely hap­pen­ing,” said Randy Troy, who needs to un­der­stand that noth­ing about NFL sta­dium deals is ever “ab­so­lutely hap­pen­ing.”

In­gle­wood Mayor James Butts, wear­ing a Rams hard hat, was quoted by USA To­day as say­ing, “This will be­come the devel­op­ment that cat­a­pults In­gle­wood into in­ter­na­tional promi­nence.”

Also wrong. In­gle­wood’s “in­ter­na­tional promi­nence” will al­ways be as a sideshow to Los An­ge­les. If they come back, will the Rams be call­ing them­selves the In­gle­wood Rams?

Triple Crown time is here. Again. An Amer­i­can Pharoah victory will be a big bump for rac­ing. Happy head­lines will scream. Thou­sands will like what they see, get the bug and join the fun.

But how long will they pa­tron­ize a sport that had a huge chunk of its le­gacy pub­licly blown up in the same week?

Shirreffs wants a Triple Crown. Ev­ery horse­man does. He is also a re­al­ist and deep-thinker.

“You lose one like Hol­ly­wood Park, there is a rip­ple ef­fect,” he said. “It was the best place, the best lo­ca­tion, the best cli­mate. “And they got rid of it.” Satur­day can bring joy. It can­not bury rub­ble.

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