Storied Hollywood Park nearing finish line

That’s all, folks.

The curtain will come down Sunday on Hollywood Park, one of California horse racing’s most-storied landmarks.

Coming soon to the 238-acre property near Los Angeles International Airport: an upscale shopping mall, hotel and 3,000 homes.

“From an economic point of view, the land now simply has a higher and better use,” track president Jack Liebau said.

With its racing days coming to an end, Hollywood Park is marking its 75th anniversary with a long goodbye.

Nicknamed the Track of Lakes and Flowers, this was the birthplace of the Breeders’ Cup, exacta wagering and Sunday horse racing. The legendary Seabiscuit won the first Hollywood Gold Cup in 1938. Triple Crown winners Citation and Affirmed reached seven-figure milestones with Gold Cup victories. More recently, super-mare Zenyatta, three-time Gold Cup winner Lava Man and 2012 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner I’ll Have Another called Hollywood’s backstretch home.

Jockeys Bill Shoemaker and Laffit Pincay Jr. set national records here with their many victories. Trainers Charlie Whittingham and Bobby Frankel dominated the track’s stakes on their way to racing’s Hall of Fame.

In the stands, real Hollywood stars added to the track’s glittering reputation. Jack Warner (of Warner Bros. fame) founded the track with such movie-making friends as Al Jolson, Walt Disney, Bing Crosby, Sam Goldwyn, Darryl Zanuck, Hal Wallis and Irene Dunne.

Hollywood Park always had a touch of its namesake glamour. Track regulars recount celebrity sightings such as Elizabeth Taylor with Michael Jackson in tow or former track president Marge Everett on the arm of Cary Grant.

There still are a few famous, albeit older, faces in the Turf Club, such as regulars Mel Brooks, Joan Rivers, Tim Conway and Dick Van Patten.

“It’s like the Ambassador Hotel, the Brown Derby,” Brooks told the New York Times. “It’s all very sad when happy places like this close down.”

With manicured gardens and man-made lakes, Hollywood Park has been a jewel for generations. It hosted the Breeders’ Cup – racing’s Super Bowl – three times, including the 1984 inaugural.

“For 75 years, Hollywood Park has been one of thoroughbred racing’s most treasured venues, hosting the sport’s biggest names, from Seabiscuit to Zenyatta, Shoemaker to Pincay, Whittingham to Frankel,” said Alex Waldrop, president of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. “The track’s closure is a major loss not only for the Southern California circuit but also those who live and work at Hollywood Park.”

Hollywood’s 18 weeks of annual racing dates will be divided among Santa Anita, Del Mar and Los Alamitos. And the 1,900 horses and 600 backstretch workers who live in the track’s stable area will move elsewhere.

“We all knew this was coming, but still, all of us here don’t want to see it go,” said trainer Jerry Hollendorfer, who splits time between the Bay Area and Los Angeles. “As long as I’ve been racing in Southern California, I’ve stabled here almost exclusively. I’m really going to miss this place.

“I think it’s a shame. You feel helpless to do anything because you really are helpless.”

Hollywood Park has about 470 year-round employees, and many have been fixtures as much as Swap’s life-size bronze statue at the clubhouse gate.

“What about the jobs?” Hollendorfer said. “Where are those people going to go?”

Hollywood Park’s days became numbered in 2005 when it was purchased for $260 million by the same company that demolished San Mateo’s Bay Meadows Race Course in 2008 for redevelopment. The track’s current owner campaigned unsuccessfully for Las Vegas-style gaming to bolster its racing business.

The recession bought Hollywood Park some extra time, but without state approval for slot machines, ownership figured redevelopment was its best bet. Ironically, the track’s poker casino and a simulcast racing facility will be part of the new redevelopment project, named Hollywood Park Tomorrow.

“Ownership has been upfront from the beginning that the property would eventually be developed unless there were significant changes in the horse racing business,” Liebau said.

Hollywood Park readies for its final close-up. Its infield flock of flamingos went to a zoo. The bones of three-time Gold Cup winner Native Diver and his 20-foot-long monument will be moved from the paddock to Del Mar. Other statues and artwork will be relocated or auctioned.

Like the film greats and equine stars that once populated its picturesque grounds, Hollywood Park soon will be only a memory.