Much like the United States itself, horse-racing culture can be divided into the camps of “have” and “have not.” The disparity between the gilded excesses of the Kentucky Derby and the barren wasteland of Hollywood Park is stark.
Photos by Maggie West
“If you wait until 4:08, you can get in for free,” the blatantly disinterested clerk at the entrance to Hollywood Park Racetrack and Casino informed me, as I desperately tried to give her the $10 entry fee. It was 3:55 and I had already started to feel the effects of the weed chocolate I had eaten earlier, so I happily accepted her terms. I avoided making small talk with the clerk by feigning interest in my phone for 13 minutes. It's surprising how little you can accomplish on a cell phone in 13 minutes. Finally, as the clock struck the magic hour, I sauntered through the gate with an extra $10 in my pocket, just ready to gamble it all away forever. There’s no such thing as a free ride, unless you’re high… or talking about the moribund sport of horse racing.
Much like the United States itself, horse-racing culture can be divided into the camps of “have” and “have not.” The disparity between the gilded excesses of the Kentucky Derby and the barren wasteland of Hollywood Park is stark. Step-repeat lines, funny hats, and copious amounts of rich people materialize at Churchill Downs every year to see and be seen at what is an absurdly anachronistic, passé sport. The everyday reality of horse racing is that the stands are not even one-third full, and instead of expensive suits and strange headgear, people wear varsity jackets with cougars embroidered on the back. Horse racing was and still is a pastime of our grandparents.
A lot of those grandparents were at the track when I was there. I worried that they would narc me out, either as a drug user or worse, someone who didn’t understand their sport of choice. I brought a guide along to expedite my immersion into the world of horse racing. He explained that self-service terminals allow visitors to place bets electronically, so you never have to speak to another human being. Considering my previous interaction with the clerk at the entrance, I felt going automated was the smart move.
Of course, horse racing existed long before the advent of electronic gambling. Hollywood Park has been in operation since 1938, with a brief closure during World War II. In that time, both the sport and the surrounding city of Inglewood have fallen far down the class spectrum. Inglewood thrived as a middle-class destination for white aerospace-industry workers. Hollywood Park and the adjacent Great Western Forum basketball arena (and home to the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Kings) were their playgrounds.
By the turbulent 1990s, Los Angeles’s demographics had changed. Inglewood had become a primarily black town and was a hub of gang violence. In October of 1999, the Staples Center opened in downtown Los Angeles, moving the Lakers, Clippers and Kings out of the decaying areas they called home and into the rapidly gentrifying downtown area. The Forum was turned into a church, and Hollywood Park has bounced from owner to owner until today. The racetrack is scheduled to be closed at the end of the year to make way for a massive redevelopment called Hollywood Park Tomorrow, which will rob the residents of Inglewood of what is in some ways a cherished symbol of civic identity for the ethnic minorities who still attend the weekend races.
In place of the curious monstrosity that is Hollywood Park, they're building 620,000 square feet of retail, 2,995 residential units, 75,000 square feet of office space, and a 300-room hotel. “The retail district will include sidewalk cafés, sit down 'white-tablecloth' restaurants, large anchor tenants, and many smaller stores including brand name retailers and local businesses,” says the Hollywood Park Tomorrow site. Most of the visitors to Hollywood Park Racetrack would be perfectly comfortable eating anywhere, white tablecloth be damned, and worse yet, they will be priced out of any entertainment options when the relatively affordable racetrack is gone. Sure, gambling is a terrible drain on the working-class poor's pocketbook, but so is a day out at some overblown outdoor mall.
The current operators of Hollywood Park seem plenty prepared for gentrification Armageddon. They’re practically closed already. Entrances and turnstiles are welded shut, purely because no one is around to use them. Alleged VIP boxes owned by multinational corporations or individual donors sit empty. I was lucky enough to occupy the American Airlines box, which gave me a great vantage point for the final two races of the day.
The only thing keeping visitors coming to Hollywood Park is the slim chance of becoming wealthy. The lower-income families who populate Inglewood see the track as a cheap entertainment option where their dreams can come true. Mothers ran their kids around the stands, trying to get them close enough to touch the horses, while fathers furiously scribbled notes on racing forms.
A racetrack is actually a terrible place for a child, as cigarette smoking occurs everywhere, most of the patrons are drunk, and the whole place reeks of human misery. If your aim is to teach your son or daughter how depressing, lonely, and devoid of meaning life really is, then I highly recommend going to a racetrack. That said, it is part of a certain tradition and I am not the sort to tell a culture how to function... unless we're talking about blue lipstick. That's never a good idea.
I gamely navigated the snot-nosed brats and beer bellies attached to human males and placed my first bet. It was on a horse named Purim’s Dancer, chosen solely because Purim is my favorite Jewish holiday. I figured it must have been some sign from God and that I was fated to walk out of Hollywood Park a rich man, a really rich man. Oh, if I were a rich man...
The Fiddler on the Roof horse lost badly, trailing far behind the pack. I was out a mere $10, the same amount I saved by waiting until 4:08 to enter the park. I felt an urge to go back to the front entrance and give the clerk a fistbump for saving me money, but I had one more race to bet on.
My second horse was a 7–2 favorite named Warren’s Wesley. I had no religious connection to the horse this time. I simply appreciated the alliteration of his name and was plenty satisfied with the odds. Warren dropped back in the pack to start the race, but picked up steam on the turn. On the final straightaway, he took a narrow lead that he did not relinquish. On a bet of $30, I walked out with a grand total of $115, the shining exception to the rule that everyone leaves a racetrack depressed.
Actually watching the race was about as exciting as eating a dry bowl of cereal in a doctor’s office waiting room that plays nothing but Celine Dion albums over the loudspeaker. It could be said that one of the likely reasons for the death of horse racing as spectator sport is that it hardly qualifies. Unlike NASCAR, where the monotony of watching cars drive around in circles is broken up by vehicular mayhem and carnage, there are no crashes in horse racing. The race lasts about two minutes without incident. A Hollywood Park regular told me that if a horse gets injured during a race, a black screen is carted out onto the field, and from behind that screen, the horse is shot in the head and removed from the track. No one sees the event take place, and by the time the black screen is taken away, the horse is long gone.
Through economic pressure and changing demographics, horse racing as a sport is about to be shot through the head. Unlike an actual horse, you can see the mercy killing live and in person. Just be sure to get there at 4:08 so that you can get in free.
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