Submitted by John Conte on Saturday, June 29, 2013 at 12:00 AM
Hollywood Park traditions prepare to find new homes
Before Jack Liebau, the president of Betfair Hollywood Park, turns out the lights on the historic track just before Christmas, he has some tidying up to do. After 75 years, stuff has a tendency to pile up. Liebau has been there only for the last eight years, but it’s always the guy at the finish who’s left with the broom.
One place to begin is the Hollywood Gold Cup, which will be run for the 74th time a week from Saturday. Hollywood opened June 10, 1938, and one month later, on July 9, the track sprung for a $50,000 race, and Seabiscuit won it like he was supposed to. Many more famous horses later, the Gold Cup supposedly has run its course, a victim, along with all else Hollywood Park, of corporate necessities. When a company with a subsidiary called the Bay Meadows Land Co. became Hollywood Park’s owner, in 2005, the handwriting was on the proverbial wall. A sunken economy, not a racing resurgence, bought Hollywood Park a few years. Now the light at the end of the economic tunnel is something other than an oncoming train, commercial development no longer sounds like the longshot it once was, and inevitability has become reality.
So bury Hollywood Park as everyone must, but put the last rites for the Hollywood Gold Cup on hold. It’s likely the Gold Cup, like several other existing fixtures around the country, will become something of a “ghost race,” this author’s coinage for a high-profile race that continues to be run, under its same name, but not at its original track. It’s a term borrowed from the “ghost bands” that came from the big-band era of the 1930s and 1940s: When the head of a well-known band died (Glenn Miller, for example), the band continued with a different leader but didn’t change its name.
Without ghost races − stakes that refuse to die − titanic chunks of racing history fade away. For example, it’s comforting to know that Carry Back won the Flamingo before he won the 1961 Derby, but since they don’t run the Flamingo anymore − and no track has made it a ghost race − it’s only recalled by students of the arcane. Ghost races keep those traditions humming.
Some of the ghost races already out there are the El Camino Real Derby, the Illinois Derby, and the John B. Campbell Stakes. The El Camino Real Derby has continued at Golden Gate Fields after Bay Meadows was torn down; the Illinois Derby moved only a furlong or two, to Hawthorne, after Sportsman’s Park went out of business; and the Campbell has had two homes, Pimlico and Laurel Park, since Bowie quit racing.
Asked about another track continuing the Hollywood Gold Cup, Liebau said he was unequivocally in favor. George Haines, president of Santa Anita, said that he and Keith Brackpool, Santa Anita’s chairman, have been talking with Liebau about the possibility of running the 2014 Hollywood Gold Cup at Santa Anita. Santa Anita’s meets have traditionally ended in mid-April, but the California Horse Racing Board, with the announcement that Hollywood Park’s final meet before redevelopment will end Dec. 22, has penciled in a racing calendar for 2014-15 that would dovetail with a Gold Cup at Santa Anita. The Santa Anita 2013-14 main meet is scheduled to run through July 6. In 2015, the closing date is supposed to be July 5. The Gold Cup, run every year since 1938 except 1942-43, when World War II intervened, is a June-July event. Sponsors are anything but hanging from the trees in the current climate, but Santa Anita might get creative and find someone who would fund a bonus for winning both the Santa Anita Handicap and the Gold Cup, which would be run about three months apart.
“We’d like to give full consideration to moving the Gold Cup to Santa Anita,” Haines said. “Santa Anita recognizes how much the Gold Cup has meant to the traditions of racing in Southern California. It would be fitting to keep that tradition going. Jack Liebau has been very accommodating in the discussions we’ve had.”
Liebau once ran Santa Anita for Frank Stronach. He seems to feel that the ball is Santa Anita’s to run with.
“It’s really up to them,” he said. “The Gold Cup has been part of the California racing landscape for so long, it would be a shame if it just went away. Santa Anita would be crazy not to do something to take advantage of the history the Gold Cup has brought to the sport. One thing that won’t get in the way is Hollywood Park making any proprietary claims on any of our races, like Oak Tree attempted to do with its stakes. It’s not going to happen.”
Liebau mentioned several other Hollywood Park races, such as the CashCall Futurity (known as the Hollywood Futurity before sponsorship), also moving on to other tracks. The Hollywood Futurity could hardly be converted into the Del Mar/Hollywood Futurity, because Del Mar already has its own Futurity, but there doesn’t seem to be a racing maxim that prevents a track from being awash in futurities, as long as the names don’t confuse the public. If Del Mar adopts the Hollywood Futurity, as it might like to, Del Mar will figure out the niceties.
Just one caveat: Don’t trust Santa Anita with the name game. Since Santa Anita dropped the Oak Tree Racing Association as a tenant in 2010, it has unilaterally added four decades of Oak Tree history to its own, and last year, when Santa Anita began renaming Oak Tree races, it seemed to run out of good names early on. The Eddie D. Stakes − fine, it was about time California had a race named after the Hall of Famer Eddie Delahoussaye. But the rechristening of Oak Tree’s Goodwood Stakes, a Breeders’ Cup launching pad for Pleasantly Perfect, Tiznow, and Alphabet Soup, just to name three, was addlepated on almost all levels. The Goodwood is now called the Awesome Again Stakes. Awesome Again never ran at Santa Anita. But connecting the dots isn’t difficult − Frank Stronach, who runs Santa Anita, raced Awesome Again and stands him as a stallion.
For a time, Oak Tree proudly clung to its stakes races and now has a copyright on some of the names. Its first year out of Santa Anita, Oak Tree ran an entire fall meeting at Hollywood Park. But by 2012, Oak Tree was reduced to ghost races − it ran three of them at Del Mar, including its prestigious Yellow Ribbon Stakes. This year, only the Yellow Ribbon at Del Mar survives. Sometimes, giving up the ghost race is the only alternative, because it can get expensive. A track can’t run another track’s races without a source for purses, and one way or the other Oak Tree paid Hollywood Park and Del Mar $600,000 to keep a few of its races alive.
“There were promises from a lot of people that didn’t happen,” said Sherwood Chillingworth, who has been executive vice president of Oak Tree for about 20 years. “If you can’t win while you’re in, you might as well stay out. That’s about all I can say. My mother was right when she said that if you can’t say anything nice about somebody, don’t say anything.”
More than it would like to admit, racing has allowed too many of its once-hallowed stakes slip away. In Northern California, the Tanforan Handicap vanished without fanfare. The Tanforan was once won by Citation, another time by Ponder. Ole Bob Bowers, the sire of John Henry, tied the world record for 1 1/8 miles in the Tanforan, and Both Ends Burning won it twice in the 1980s. Tanforan − the race track − burned down in 1964. Bay Meadows picked up the Tanforan Handicap, then it was passed on to Golden Gate Fields, where its last running was 2006.
The Flamingo Stakes is even sadder. In Florida, the Flamingo at Hialeah and the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park were gold-standard prep races for the Kentucky Derby. From 1938 through 1979, 13 Kentucky Derby winners ran in the Flamingo en route to Churchill Downs. Two of them − Citation and Seattle Slew − swept the Triple Crown. In 2000, the Flamingo was run at Gulfstream in a one-shot shifting of dates. After the 2001 Flamingo, Hialeah folded as a Thoroughbred operation and there was no movement to acquire its signature race.
“The race was so closely connected with the birds,” said John Brunetti, still the president of Hialeah, which is now in the business of Quarter Horse racing, simulcasting, and casino gambling. “Without the birds, the symbol of the race, running the Flamingo someplace wouldn’t mean much.” For what it’s worth, Hialeah still has about 250 flamingos on the grounds.
Without Santa Anita coming forward, the Hollywood Gold Cup, like the Flamingo, wound be in danger of becoming extinct. From Seabiscuit in 1938 to Game On Dude last year, the roster of Gold Cup winners is chockablock with champions. Five Gold Cup winners also won the Kentucky Derby. Eleven Gold Cup winners also won Horse of the Year titles.
Santa Anita’s George Haines said the Hollywood Gold Cup is not the only Hollywood Park race his track is looking at. There is also the chance that some of Hollywood’s fall stakes − from its annual abbreviated meet − might land at Del Mar. In 2014-15, the dates for Del Mar’s newly conceived second meet overlap in part with the fall dates that Hollywood Park used to have. Although Hollywood’s fall meet came after the Breeders’ Cup, the track managed to minimize the ennui. Hollywood assembled a fall festival of graded stakes races, and ran a pair of Grade 1 stakes for 2-year-olds − the CashCall Futurity and the Starlet.
“We’d like to restore as many of those Hollywood stakes as we can,” said Tom Robbins, executive vice president for racing at Del Mar. “The Futurity and the Starlet would certainly be two that fit in. If we could mirror as many of those late Hollywood stakes as we could, that would be a boost to our late meet.”
Arguably, the CashCall Futurity (the Hollywood Futurity until 2007) has been more of a harbinger than the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Just a short list of its winners − Snow Chief, Best Pal, A.P. Indy, Real Quiet, Captain Steve, and Point Given − is enough to hang your hat on. What track wouldn’t want a ghost race with a tradition such as this?
The Gold Cup and the Hollywood Juvenile Championship, which will both be run for the 74th time this year, are the oldest stakes at Hollywood Park. Thirteen other races there have been run 50 times or more. By comparison, Hollywood’s Native Diver Handicap has been run 34 times, yet it is one of the likeliest race for Del Mar to absorb. That’s because the race would be a fitting companion for the 20-foot-long Native Diver monument which is headed, according to Liebau, for Del Mar. Native Diver, the first horse to win the Gold Cup three straight years (Lava Man is the only other), is buried in the paddock gardens, not far from the monument. Six weeks after Native Diver won his third Gold Cup, in 1967, he won the Del Mar Handicap. Nine days later, ill with colic, he died.
Two years after Swaps’s Gold Cup win in 1956, he was honored with a life-sized bronze at the inside clubhouse entrance. Sculpted by Albert Stewart, it depicts Swaps in full throttle, with Bill Shoemaker in the saddle. Liebau said it hasn’t been decided where the Swaps likeness will go. The National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., has expressed an interest.
The Swaps statue can wait, and so can the flamingos. When R.D. Hubbard was in charge at Hollywood, Hialeah’s John Brunetti, as a favor, sent him several dozen flamingos for the infield lake. There are still remnants of that original flock, but Liebau said that he hadn’t given any thought to the flamingos.
“Tell this to Jack Liebau,” Brunetti said. “If he wants to give ’em back, I’ll take ’em.”