Once upon a time I went to Hollywood Park for a day of racing with my family. I'd previously been to many races where my uncle's horses were running, but I'd never been there for a win. And I don't remember another time when my Uncle George and Uncle Harry had horses in back-to-back races. My grandfather, who'd been a trainer on the New England circuit, had passed away four months earlier. I've no doubt he and my grandmother were with us that day.
Uncle George's Hollywood Story ran in the second to last race of the day, and when she finished, of course, we were all ecstatic, especially me - excited to finally be in a winner's circle picture with my family.
Uncle Harry's Proud Phil ran in the last race, and we all needed to pinch ourselves when he also finished first. There was a lot of laughing, the kind of laughter that verged on tears.
I'd been to Hollywood Park dozens of times, from the time I was a baby, but none as memorable as that December afternoon in 2004.
Hollywood Story and baby, 2008
Had it not been for horse racing, it's quite possible my parents never would have met. It seems to be one of the few things they have in common. Growing up, and as an adult, I loved getting up early on Saturday mornings to go with my grandpa to the training track - it was so invigorating to be there watching the horses work when the sun was just coming up.
I remember being at Hollywood Park as a young kid, my vision at waist level, and men wearing brown suits, and the smell of cigars. Every year, on the first Saturday in May, everything stopped for three minutes so we could watch the Kentucky Derby. When my grandmother died, after the service and the mercy meal, we all went to Del Mar and watched satellite racing because, well, what else were we going to do?
In college I participated in two sports writing workshops - one at Hollywood Park and the other at Churchill Downs. Standing on the backstretch before the sun came up at Churchill Downs and seeing the twin spires lit up brought tears to my eyes.
That the horse racing industry is waning in popularity does not come as a surprise. There are few superstar horses drawing in the crowds. There are many more things competing for people's interest. But when I read this article in December that 2009 could be Hollywood Park's last year, I was very sad. I wasn't expecting a track with so much history (at least, for me, personal history) to close so soon. I hope the development planned in its place gets put on hold. I hope someone comes up with a plan to revitalize the sport so more tracks aren't closed. I hope someday for my kids to be able to go to the track with their grandparents.
And while in no way do I think it's any sort of permanent solution, I hope in the interim the new show "Jockeys" on Animal Planet generates some fresh interest in The Sport of Kings.