By Beth Harris
INGLEWOOD, Calif. -- Fans crowded into Betfair Hollywood Park for the last time Sunday.
The track closed for good after the day's 11 races, ending 75 years of racing that featured such thoroughbred stars as Seabiscuit, Triple Crown winners Citation, Seattle Slew and Affirmed, and Zenyatta. The first Breeders' Cup in 1984 was run here. The track will be turned into a residential and retail development starting next year.
Plans call for the track's 260-acre footprint to be turned into 3,000 housing units, including single-family townhomes and condos; 25 acres of parkland, including a 10-acre central park; and a retail and entertainment district, anchored by a movie theatre, office space and a 300-room hotel.
Betfair Hollywood Park is the second major California racetrack to close since 2008, when Bay Meadows near San Francisco was shuttered after 74 years to make way for a similar development.
Santa Anita, located in Arcadia, will open its winter meet Thursday. Los Alamitos in Orange County will pick up some of Hollywood Park's racing dates, too. The track's future had been in question since Churchill Downs sold it to Hollywood Park Land Co. in 2005.
At the time, the new owner said racing would continue for a minimum of three years while an effort was made to revitalize the sport's business model. But the track had little luck in stemming declines in wagering and attendance, problems that plague the racing industry nationwide. Statewide initiatives to install slot machines at the track also failed.
Jack Van Berg, the 77-year-old Hall of Fame trainer, blamed the cities of Inglewood and Los Angeles and the state of California for the track's closure. "I just think it's a pathetic thing," he said near the paddock. "It's ridiculous to let something like this that so many people love and thrive on close. They did everything they could to kill racing."
Van Berg, who has raced in California for 41 years, said he's moving his operations to Oaklawn Park in Arkansas. "I've had enough," he said. "I don't like California racing anymore. I don't like the way they run it and what they do."
Hollywood Park opened in 1938 under the direction of movie moguls Jack and Harry Warner. Among the celebrity regulars years ago were Elizabeth Taylor, Jimmy Stewart and Bing Crosby.
For its last day, though, the track came alive again, with jammed parking lots, lines at the betting windows, and fans and employees swapping stories about the Track of the Lakes and Flowers. Paid attendance exceeded 13,000 -- more than double that of a typical weekend -- and after 2 p.m. the gates were opened to everyone to alleviate congestion, a track spokesman said. It was the largest crowd since 25,837 attended Zenyatta's last race in California on Oct. 2, 2010. California Chrome, the 2-1 favorite ridden by Victor Espinoza and trained by Art Sherman, won the final stakes race, the $200,000 King Glorious for 2-year-olds by 6 1/4 lengths.
Bugler Jay Cohen announced the final post parade of horses with a medley of "Auld Lang Syne" and "Hooray for Hollywood" before they walked onto the track to the Etta James classic "At Last." A huge cheer went up as announcer Vic Stauffer told the crowd, "It's post time!" Fans kept up the cheers as the horses ran through the stretch to the finish line. Fittingly, it was a photo finish. Woodmans Luck, ridden by Corey Nakatani and trained by Vladimir Cerin, was declared the winner of the turf race worth $50,000.
Rafael Bejarano rode four winners on the card to wrap up the jockeys' title with 37 winners, while Hall of Famer Bob Baffert was shut out on the final day, but won the training title with 16 winners to John Sadler's 15. Dick Van Patten, the 85-year-old actor who starred in TV's "Eight is Enough," was a longtime regular. He walked away a winner, when his horse Tanquerray won the $50,000 third race.
Baffert made his first visit from Arizona in the early 1970s. "The thing I remember most was getting up close to the winner's circle and seeing Cary Grant," he said. "That was a thrill."
The track had been preparing to close for weeks. The gift shop was cleaned out of souvenirs before closing day. Some photos of jockeys on the wall in the betting areas had already disappeared.
Much of the track's items, including artwork and memorabilia, tractors and restaurant equipment, will be auctioned on Jan. 24-25.
Two errant flamingoes that escaped capture a few weeks ago sunned themselves on the edge of one of the infield lakes. They will soon be rounded up and taken to a Northern California zoo, where the track's other flamingoes were relocated.
About 50 cats living in the stable area are in search of new homes before the barn area closes at the end of January. The sprawling grandstand will be torn down and simulcasting will be moved to the adjacent casino.
The graves of three horses buried in the infield will be relocated. Native Diver, who won the Hollywood Gold Cup from 1965-67, will be moved to Del Mar racetrack near San Diego. Landaluce, the 2-year-old champion filly of 1982, will go to Spendthrift Farm in Kentucky, where she was bred. Great Communicator, the 1988 Breeders' Cup Turf winner, also will be moved.
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