INGLEWOOD, CALIF. -- When Santa Anita's fall racing season ended on Monday of last week, a crowd of 27,661 turned out, and that figure was not an exceptional one for the popular track. The average attendance for the meeting exceeded 25,000.
Two days later, Hollywood Park began its season before a crowd of 15,646. It was the smallest opening-day attendance in Hollywood's history, but nobody was surprised, because business has been steadily plummeting at the track that was once the perennial American leader in attendance and wagering. Hollywood Park has become so unpopular that on the day of the Breeders' Cup it had to offer a big giveaway -- free sweater-vests -- to lure a crowd of respectable size.
To an out-of-towner who visits Hollywood Park, the track's decline seems utterly inexplicable. Any horseplayer ought to be happy coming here.
The grandstand is a big, brightly colored facility, and if it doesn't have Santa Anita's charm -- not many tracks do -- it is a pleasant and efficient place. The racing surface is excellent -- much better and fairer than Santa Anita's speed-favoring superhighway. There's plenty of action for a bettor, with exactas on most races and a Pick Six with carryover -- a contrast to Santa Anita's puritanical attitude, which seems to disapprove of too much gambling.
Nor does Hollywood Park suffer from any serious geographical or demographic problems (as, say, Hialeah does). It is located next door to the Forum, which has no trouble luring fans from all over the area for Lakers games.
In view of Hollywood Park's merits, it is surprising to hear the vehemence of local horseplayers' opinions of the track. A couple of nights before the Breeders' Cup, I talked to a local bettor who is a regular at Santa Anita. "It's twice as far from my house to Santa Anita than it is to Hollywood," he said, "but I won't go to Hollywood. I hate the place. To bet the Breeders' Cup, I'm flying to Las Vegas for the weekend."
That kind of hostility is typical among local racing fans, and much of it is directed toward Hollywood Park's chief executive officer, Marje Everett. A controversial figure in the racing game since the 1960s, Everett is a domineering boss who puts her stamp on every aspect of the Hollywood Park operation, from parking spaces to stall assignments.
Personal resentments toward her abound -- from employes whose shoulders she has peered over; from those she has fired; from members of the racing community who feel they have been the victims of her favoritism toward others.
Even so, Hollywood Park continued to prosper for a few years after Everett started running the operation in 1979. The track's business did not start turning downward until 1984, the year it opened a $40 million addition called the Pavilion of the Stars. It has subsequently been renamed the Cary Grant Pavilion, which gave rise to a nickname for a place almost nobody patronizes: Grant's Tomb.
The inaugural Breeders' Cup was run here in 1984, and Hollywood Park wanted to usher it in with a big splash. The pavilion was conceived as the chic, upscale part of the track -- complete with posh, private boxes. But it turned out to be disaster, in both esthetic and practical terms.
The five-tier structure is a cold, austere concrete-and-glass box. The private boxes, which were supposed to be one of the pavilion's prime attractions, offered such poor, obstructed views of the races that nobody wanted to sit in them.
This waste of money was bad enough, but the construction of the pavilion was part of a whole reconfiguration of the Hollywood Park track.
The circumference of the track was increased from a mile to 1 1/8 miles to accommodate the Breeders' Cup, and the finish line was moved a sixteenth of a mile down the stretch to accommodate the pavilion.
Because the pavilion had been built at the end of the stretch -- a lousy spot for watching races -- the finish was shifted so the pavilion's customers would be closer to it. Actually, the wire was actually located in a no-man's-land between the main grandstand and the pavilion, so that nobody could see the finish of the races properly.
People hated the new look with a passion. They hated the abandonment of the one-mile oval that is traditional in California. Instead of starting in front of the stands, mile races now started from a distant, barely visible chute on the backstretch. They hated the new finish line -- especially the holders of box seats near the old finish line. Hollywood's average attendance has dropped each year since the pavilion was built.
Saddled by debts from the construction of the pavilion and faced with declining business, Hollywood Park has serious financial problems. The company is losing money (its 1985 annual report showed pretax losses of $4.1 million) and is under pressure from its banks. Some of its problems may be eased by the start of intertrack betting in Southern California, but there seems no remedy for the ill will that the horseplayers of this area have come to feel for what should be a wonderful race track.