Submitted by Jerry Antonucci on Friday, September 13, 2013 at 12:00 AM
Santa Anita facelift more than a nip and tuck
The flashback is the same. Every time there is a guided tour of a busy construction site by a beaming, enthusiastic racetrack impresario, I am taken back to the autumn of 1984, to Hollywood Park, where the boss herself, Marjorie Everett, was leading a parade of local press up the winding tower at the west end of the freshly christened the Pavilion of the Stars.
The Pavilion, costing $30 million, was an icy five-story cube with misaligned viewing areas and vast interior expanses that more closely resembled an immigration processing center than a vibrant sports facility. Its flaws were so obvious so early that the track refused to pay part of the construction tab, and the lawsuits began to fly.
“Somebody created this building, and somebody should pay to fix it,” said Neil Papiano, Hollywood Park’s attorney. “That somebody isn’t going to be Hollywood Park. Obviously, you can’t move the building. What has to be done is move the track so people can see better.”
Of course, that did not happen. What happened was that Everett renamed the Pavilion in honor of her friend and fellow Hollywood Park board member Cary Grant, although she waited until Grant died in 1986 to do it. This inevitably led to the building’s grim nickname – Grant’s Tomb. Through subsequent years of track ownership the Cary Grant Pavilion morphed into a multi-use facility and eventually became the home of the Hollywood Park Casino, which has nothing to do with Hollywood Park Thoroughbred racing but just happens to be located on the clubhouse turn.
The flashback recurred earlier this week at Santa Anita when track chairman Keith Brackpool tossed this reporter a hard hat and said, “Let’s take a walk.” Fortunately, memories of Grant’s Tomb quickly faded away.
Precious little had been spent on Santa Anita’s physical plant since Frank Stronach’s initial flurry of renovations more than a decade ago. The splendor of the natural setting and the continued quality of the grounds were growing ever more in contrast with the aging interiors.
The Santa Anita grandstand, expanded in stages through the years, occupies a million square feet. There are literally thousands of general admission seats that go untouched by human backsides for all but those days on which a Breeders’ Cup event is staged. (Santa Anita will host the second of three straight Breeders’ Cups this Nov. 1 and 2.) With a budget of $10 million to $15 million, Brackpool and his designers decided to attack areas geared toward horsemen, high-rollers and the modern leisure consumer, while making most of those areas available as well to any clubhouse customer.
Brackpool, who similarly renovated and modernized his Manhattan Beach Country Club, is best known in the Thoroughbred world as the former chairman of the California Horse Racing Board. He stepped down from that post in 2012 to take an equity position with Stronach’s privately held racetrack company the Stronach Group, which also owns Gulfstream Park, Golden Gate Fields, Pimlico and Laurel.
There is understandable skepticism in the California racetrack community that money spent on grandstand renovations could be better used elsewhere, like building new barns somewhere, anywhere, for a circuit about to lose Hollywood Park. Brackpool is braced for such comments and hopes the renovations carry the conversation.
“There is too much over-promising and under-producing in this business,” he said. “We are intent on under-promising and over-producing.”
The area traditionally known as the Horsemen’s Mezzanine will have the most dramatic facelift, with the long space running behind the box seats on the second floor completely redone in a style more appropriate to 2013 than 1955. Regulars will be assured to know there is still a Nola’s Bar, only now bartender Nola Ferraro will lord over a large, horseshoe shaped bar.
“Nola came by the other day to check it out,” Brackpool said. “She loved it. There were tears of joy.”
The Santa Anita renovation project suffered a public relations hit right out of the box last spring when the local Pasadena Star-News, quoting an anonymous “person with knowledge of the plan,” reported that the venerable Chandelier Room of the Turf Club would be converted into “a nightclub,” and the four iconic chandeliers would be removed. Not much about the story proved correct.
“The first time I saw this room I could only think of how magnificent it once must have been,” Brackpool said.
He was right. It was magnificant, even well into the 1970s, when the Santa Anita Turf Club was considered an aristocratic preserve and membership was exclusive.
By the turn of the century the Turf Club had been depopulated and the Chandelier Room was virtually deserted. The famous Santa Anita art collection adorning the walls had been sold off by previous track owners and replaced with copies. The signature potted palms rimming the room were exhausted from years of service, their “gilded” fronds revealed as cheap tin. Schemes for new uses to which the Chandelier Room could be put bubbled and burst. As for those chandeliers . . .
“They were removed,” Brackpool said, “to be cleaned.” He ushered his visitor into the space. “Does this look like any nightclub you’ve ever seen?”
No, it does not, for the simple reason that the Chandelier Room is being renovated with daylight as a major component. The colors are light. Two giant flat screens with multi-image tile technology will replace the small, scattered array of TV monitors. The spiral staircases that flank the main hall now lead not to exterior dining tables but to a new balcony overlooking both the expansive well of the Chandelier Room and the panorama of the racetrack, which means for the first time since they were hung in 1934 those four chandeliers will catch the natural light of day. Brackpool stood at the west end of the room and pointed to the giant mirrors reaching to the ceiling from behind a long bar.
“Look at the reflection,” he said, pointing upward.
It was the mountains.
“This project involves only 85,000 square feet of the million sqaure feet of the grandstand,” Brackpool added. “Obviously, there is a lot more that needs to be done. My hope is that what we’ve done has a high impact. Getting people to come to Santa Anita is one thing. Making sure they want to come back is the objective, because it’s a place that gives them an experience like no other.”