Beneath The Super Bowl’s Turf: The Ghosts of Hollywood Park

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Just north of SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, home of Sunday’s Super Bowl LVI, a roadway named Pincay Drive connects South Prairie Avenue on the west to Crenshaw Boulevard on the East. It is nearly a mile long and dead straight, unremarkable except for the history it holds in six white letters on a green background. Pincay Drive is ostensibly an homage to Hall of Fame thoroughbred jockey Laffit Pincay, Jr. “When they named it, the mayor of Inglewood sent a letter,’’ says Pincay, who retired in 2003 and is now 75. “I’m proud of that street.’’ As he should be: Only one rider in history has won more races than Pincay. The sign bearing his name recognizes a towering personal greatness. But also the passage of time and a dimming legacy (not his). It is part guidepost, part memorial.

SoFi – it’s called a “stadium,’’ but it is so breathtaking in scope that it begs for a fresh noun, much like the Astrodome did more than a half century ago – sits on the earth where once sat Hollywood Park, a racetrack (and at times, it seems, a sport) from another time. Before it was Hollywood Park, it was a bean field, and then when it opened in 1938, a marriage of old Hollywood itself and the erstwhile Sport of Kings. Its original backers included Bing Crosby and Walt Disney. It remained so for many years, a place to be seen and photographed. “My earliest days there,’’ says Pincay. “I met so many movie stars.’’  Triple Crown winners Citation, Seattle Slew and Affirmed raced at Hollywood Park. The first Breeders Cup championships took place at Hollywood, in 1984 (and returned twice thereafter). Gradually, the movie stars stopped coming, and eventually, so too the horses. A dispiriting racing tale played on an endless loop.

The final race at Hollywood Park finished in the gloaming, at 6:11 p.m. on Dec. 22, 2013. Demolition of the track began in 2014, and was virtually finished with the implosion of the main grandstand on May 31, 2015. The prodigal Los Angeles Rams and former San Diego Chargers moved into SoFi for the 2020 season. Racing in Southern California became largely concentrated at Santa Anita in Arcadia and Del Mar, just north of San Diego, with help from the resurrected Los Alamitos. Hollywood Park took its place as the most famous among dozens of race tracks shuttered in the last 25 years.

Tom Dempsey Kicking Record-Setting Field Goal (Nov. 8, 1970) Getty Images

It is manifest truth that most of our bricks-and-mortar memories will pass into their own afterlives, compelled by various forms of progress. All that’s left of Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, where Bill Mazeroski hit the game-winning Game 7 home run in the 1960 World Series, is a little piece of wall on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh. The Spectrum, where Christian Laettner beat Kentucky at the buzzer in 1992? First dwarfed by a new arena, then demolished. In 2012, on assignment for Sports Illustrated and writing about the then-record 63-yard field goal’s enduring power, I tried to find the exact spot from where Tom Dempsey of the New Orleans Saints had kicked his 63-yarder in 1970, the first from that distance. was long gone, and the best I could do was narrow the spot down to Tulane Stadium a nice lawn on a quad outside the college’s athletic complex. There was no marker commemorating the moment. We are often left with YouTube and our imagination.

It is symbolically resonant that in Inglewood, horse racing has been replaced by football, a baton pass across decades, from a time – just about when Hollywood Park opened — when racing, boxing and baseball were America’s games, to when professional football is the most reliably lucrative entertainment property in America. Rarely is the transformation so stark and so on-the-nose. Old sport, meet new sport. It is not a transformation you could have sold in 1939, but today it sells itself.

Hollywood Park evolved into the workaday track in Southern California. Santa Anita, 15 miles east, is framed by the San Gabriel Mountains, every bit as breathtaking as the Rose Bowl, every bit as glamorous. Del Mar had the ocean, and a deserved party reputation as the Saratoga of the West (or vice versa; geographic semantics with the same outcome). Hollywood, through a succession of ownership and design changes, was at its core, reliable. “There was never any consistent feel to Hollywood Park,’’ says Jay Hovdey, for many years a California-based columnist for the Daily Racing Form. “It was more about who and when, a long stretch of sunny post-school days – fast track, firm turf, and a guaranteed lineup of all-star performers on the track, even on a Thursday afternoon.’’

Two-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Doug O’Neill moved from Michigan to Santa Monica, California at age 10, and frequented all three California tracks. “Hollywood Park was just always right there, short drive, they had Friday night racing,’’ says O’Neill. “It was a really important part of the mix.’’

SoFi Stadium (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

O’Neill’s first Grade I (the highest level) victory came with Sky Jack in the 2002 Hollywood Gold Cup, and he won it three more times with Lava Man, victories that elevated his place in the game, long before his first Derby win, with I’ll Have Another in 2012 (followed by Nyquist in 2016). He drove past Hollywood when the demolition was underway on the grandstand and thought to himself, okay, I guess there’s no turning back now. “It’s a big void for all of us,” says O’Neill. “We spent what, three, four months of our lives at Hollywood Park, every year?”

O’Neill has been back once, for a Rolling Stones concert last October. He found himself looking around, trying to reconcile the monolith in which he sat from the racetrack where he had worked and played. “It was disorienting,’’ says O’Neill. “It was a cool place to train horses, the access to the main track for training was really good. And here I was looking around, thinking, okay, where was our barn? Where was the training track? Big-time confusing.’’

There was no bigger modern horse at Hollywood than Zenyatta. In the autumn of 2010, she lived the last months of her thoroughbred racing career in trainer John Shirreffs’ Barn 55 south at Hollywood Park. Zenyatta was a superstar in a fading sport, a giant, late-running mare who won 19 consecutive races over four years and punched little holes in the wall that often keeps racing hidden from the larger world, except on Kentucky Derby day (and every once in a while, on the Belmont Stakes Saturday that follows). She was known, and in that way only true believers can comprehend, she was loved.

Her home was the furthest barn from the main racetrack, with its cruise ship-sized grandstand, though closest to the distant training track. Shirreffs got the spot because nobody else was interested; it was not only a long haul to the race paddock, but the barn was short on worker housing. That was fine with Shirreffs, who not only liked privacy, but many of his employees lived in Inglewood. “They also told me they would never move me again,’’ says Shirreffs. “So I said, `I’ll take it.’”

Jockey Mike Smith and Zenyatta during the 2009 Breeders’ Cup World Championships/Getty Images

Barn 55 south was an urban oasis inside an urban oasis. There were palm trees whispering up against the shedrow and a grassy lawn the size of a hockey rink, shaded by a row of trees and surrounded by a walking path. Zenyatta was most at peace grazing back behind the barn, occasionally lifting her head to look at a car passing in the distance or at the birds overhead. There were many visitors, and one morning a woman who had won a “Breakfast With Zenyatta’’ contest left her purse on a chair to visit with Zenyatta on the grass, but the mare kept trying to drag her back to the purse because it was full of carrots.

Late in October of 2010, Zenyatta was narrowly beaten in her last race, the Breeders Cup Classic at Churchill Downs. She came back briefly to Hollywood, where her racetrack family said goodbye, and then she left for good, relocated to a breeding farm back in Kentucky. The spot where she once grazed is now part of SoFi’s sprawling field of parking lots. A friend of Shirreffs who is attending the Super Bowl told Shirreffs he’s been assigned a spot very near where Barn 55 south once stood, and that he paid $450 for it.

For Shirreffs, 76, born in Kansas, raised on Long Island, a Marine who served in Vietnam, Hollywood Park was not just that urban oasis for his horses, but an island of calm for the adults who care for them. It started for Shirreffs when California racing would move from Santa Anita to Hollywood Park in the spring, just as days began lengthening. “It was a rebirth, in a sense,’’ he says. He remembers a walkway from the barn area to the main track, “It was dirt, with trees on both sides,’’ he says. “You could walk your horse to the track in a nice quiet manner. Very peaceful.’’

Three decades before Zenyatta, when Shirreffs was working for trainer Brian Mayberry and would see two-time Horse of the Year John Henry (1981, ’84) walking past en route to the track for a workout. “I would say `That’s John Henry?’” says Shirreffs. “He looked like a pony. One day I went over to the track and what a transformation. It was like he gained 100 pounds, and all the blood went to his muscles, and boy, he was something to see.’’

They all have memories. O’Neill with his Gold Cup wins. Pincay talks about early mornings, getting on a couple of horses and then hanging out with Hall of Fame trainers Ron McAnally and the late Bobby Frankel. And about riding Triple Crown winner Affirmed to victory in the 1979 Hollywood Gold Cup. “My favorite horse,’’ he says. This is what remains: Words, images, recollections.

“I was sad when they tore the place down,’’ says Shirreffs. “But the greater sadness is number one, that nobody in the industry wanted to preserve it, and number two, nobody wanted to do something to replace it.’’

It is the sport’s struggle, writ large. And football’s triumph, writ larger. A scant few of the thousands who arrive Sunday will scan the pristine grounds and remember what’s buried beneath their feet, and perhaps tell a friend. But Hollywood Park’s gilded past grows ever more distant:

The dying echo of a bugle, the fading rumble of hoofbeats.

Acres of asphalt, steel and artificial grass, laid over a fragile history.

Tim Layden is writer-at-large for NBC Sports. He was previously a senior writer at Sports Illustrated for 25 years.