Wednesday, July 15, 2009

A trip to Hollywood Park

The idea of someone wanting to demolish Hollywood Park is a gruesome thing in my eyes, something that can’t quite be believed after taking in the opulent landscaping and distinct character of the park first-hand. I can’t quite grasp the sort of people who would want to turn a place of such beauty and history into retail trash. Hollywood Park boasts the most impressive paddock I’ve ever seen in comparing landscaping and layout, and it champions the heroes of its signature race, the Hollywood Gold Cup, with plaques all about the park. The park is a testament of a bygone era, but it is far from the dump that some tracks have become. My trip to the Friday night racing was a testament to how successful the sport could be if only an effort were made to cater to a different sort of crowd. Yet, we are losing a significant piece of racing history with the knell of Death’s bell for Hollywood.

I paid strict attention to Hollywood Park itself on my brief visit there, taking in the abundant palm trees, the honor bestowed upon the Gold Cup winners, the monuments, and the track itself. I felt I was going as a sort of archaeologist, trying to preserve in pictures something that wouldn’t be there when I next returned to California. I took pictures of the Swaps statue from just about every angle I could think of, and paid my respects to the grave of Native Diver (follow the link for a great video on this amazing horse), who has one of the most lovely memorials I’ve ever seen.

The track itself has already been ruined by the installation of the abhorrent Cushion Track, a surface that by all means is nothing more than ground-up tires (pick up a handful of it and not only will your hand turn black, but you’ll find tire segments an inch long). The dirt on which Seabiscuit which ran is no longer there, but the skies, the elegance, the aura is the same (though it may be slightly tarnished by an age of neglect).
When I arrived at the park, I was blown away by the Vegas-like style of the grand entrance, and equally hit with a pang of sorrow that this place would be thrown such a fate as the old Yankee Stadium. The two are similar in many ways.
I’d never attended night racing at a Thoroughbred track before, and the experience was one I’d like to have again. The crowd turned out to be larger than the day of the Hollywood Gold Cup, sadly enough. It seemed whoever these patrons were were there for the $1 beer and hot dogs, and possibly to see the live act scheduled for after the races, Eek a Mouse. But the nice thing about the crowd was that they seemed to be enjoying themselves, and heartily cheered claimers as they rounded the historic track.

The Tuesday of that week, I called in for credentials and easily got them, which made me feel pretty special. When I arrived at the park, I picked up my press pass from Diane in the office and looked across her office to find one of the free Zenyatta posters they’d handed out on a day designated in her honor last winter. Can you believe she actually had leftovers and readily scrounged me up two of them for free? My day was completely made by that point, and I’d yet to start shooting. I had slim hopes of seeing Zenyatta while I was there, since I did know regular shooter at the park, Charles Pravata, who, in our circles, is referred to as “Zenyatta’s personal photographer.” But I didn’t get my hopes up. It turned out to be a good thing.

Charles didn’t show up on Friday, but he let me know that Bob Mayberger from New York (yes, the same Bob whom I shot with at Belmont!) was in town to shoot the Gold Cup. Bob didn’t end up showing until the short card was about halfway over and the daylight had failed, so he missed the beautiful sunset. Meanwhile, I introduced myself to the track photographers and tried to stay out of their way. Since my boss told me he wanted me to shoot from the inside rail for the Gold Cup, I tried to practice some from that position on Friday. Let me tell you, taking photos at night directly into spotlights is absolutely no fun. Taking photos from the outside, however, is pretty cool and challenging, because there’s only one point where the spotlight is on the horses: just on the finish line. At no point is it nice to shoot from the inside during night racing, unless you’re cool like that and want to shoot an “atmospheric” photo. That may work for one race, but I don’t recommend it for a full card.
When Bob finally found me, the night picked up a little bit and I started chatting with him about how gorgeous Hollywood was. Someone had told him that Hollywood Park was “the Aqueduct of California” and we both thought whoever said that was out of their gourd. Maybe it’s that we’re not from California and are used to the ugliness of Aqueduct and/or Turfway Park, but Hollywood would put those tracks to shame in a beauty contest.

I ended up leaving before the card was over. I'd actually hurt my ankles walking down steep slopes at Yosemite National Park two days prior, and then not helped them by hiking around Sequoia National Park the previous day, and I was not as fresh as I'd been in my Belmont adventure. I needed all the energy I could get the next day, but it was still hardly enough!

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