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Features - EVENTS/TRAVEL

Citation, on the outside, won the 1951 edition of the Hollywood Gold Cup.

by Terry Conway

Like its British namesake, the Hollywood Gold Cup has a long, rich history.

From Seabiscuit’s handy victory in the first Gold Cup to Lava Man’s three consecutive victories on two different surfaces from 2005-2007 to Game On Dude's win last year, some of the greatest horses in the archives of racing — Swaps, Round Table, Gallant Man, Affirmed, Native Diver — stormed to victories in the Grade 1 race each July at Hollywood Park. Exiting the clubhouse, visitors can gaze upon the names of all the Gold Cup winners engraved on a marble wall. 

GOLD CUP WINNERS ON DISPLAY AT HOLLYWOOD

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Founded in the heyday of Hollywood, the Ingleside track opened its doors in 1938 as the Hollywood Turf Club with Warner Brothers executive Jack L. Warner as the first chairman of the club. The original 500 Hollywood Park investors included numerous producers, directors, actors and actresses. Among those in the venture were Jack and his brother Harry Warner, Al Jolson, Raoul Walsh, Darryl Zanuck, Walt Disney, Samuel Goldwyn, Joan Blondell, George Jessel, Irene Dunne, Hal Wallis, Bing Crosby, Ralph Bellamy, Ronald Colman and Mervyn LeRoy, who gave us The Wizard of Oz and who served as the director of Hollywood Park from 1941 until his death in 1986.

LeRoy once said: "Like motion pictures, racing is amusement, and in the amusement field the public will patronize only the best."

Warner raised $2,233,000 to build a track on a bean field in Inglewood that featured a clubhouse that seated 3,000, a 12,000-seat grandstand, standing room for another 40,000 people and stalls for 1,250 horses. At Hollywood Park, image was everything.

The 37-acre infield was painstakingly landscaped with trees and flowers complementing three artificial lakes covering 10 acres, replete with islands and waterfalls. It gave Hollywood Park its sobriquet "Track of Lakes and Flowers." In a distinctly Hollywood touch, a "goose girl" was chosen to oversee the track's resident colony of ducks and later to paddle about the lakes in a swan-shaped boat.

An enclosed saddling paddock and a sunken tote board that allowed fans a clear view of the backstretch were other innovations, but the Hollywood-inspired idea to display the horses on a revolving turntable before each race got nixed.

The inaugural edition of the Hollywood Gold Cup was staged on July 16, 1938. Nine horses — carrying between 105 and 120 pounds — lined up to try to beat Seabiscuit, who was lugging 133 pounds, before a crowd of 60,000 on a sun-splashed afternoon. Five-year-old Seabiscuit went off at 7-to-10 odds  in the 1 ¼-mile race. 

After breaking sluggishly, Seabiscuit dropped back to ninth place under jockey George Woolf, and at the half-mile post he was trailing Specify by a dozen lengths. He moved into contention coming out of the far turn. Woolf shifted Seabiscuit to the rail. Seabiscuit’s ears flipped back and flattened, and he started gunning for Specify. He swept past the leader and flashed under the wire by 1 1/2 lengths, breaking the track record for the distance.

It was Seabiscuit’s one and only appearance on the Hollywood Park racing strip.  In the winner’s circle Woolf and the horse were draped in flowers: “I thought it would be easy,” he said, “and it was.”

During the track’s first half-century, many of the stars owned and raced their own stable of horses. 

Telly Savalas owned the renowned Telly's Pop. For a big race, Savalas once made a dramatic entrance at the track via helicopter. Fred Astaire loved the races, and in 1980, the 81-year-old Astaire married jockey Robyn Smith — at 35, younger than both of his children. Louis B. Mayer became so obsessed with his stable of ponies that he was given an ultimatum by the MGM film company — produce horses or produce pictures. Cary Grant was such a regular at Hollywood Park that after he died, they named their new clubhouse the Cary Grant Pavilion. Al Jolson was an avid owner of racehorses, as was Bonanza’s Michael Landon and even more recently rapper MC Hammer and Kevin Costner.

From the early 1950s through the early 1970s, Hollywood Park led the nation in average daily attendance, handle and purses. Racing and aviation history were recorded in 1946, when Historian was flown from Chicago to compete in the Hollywood Gold Cup, the first time a horse was shipped by air to run in a specific race. He finished third, beaten by two necks. 

The Gold Cup is 74 years old this year in what is Hollywood Park's final racing season, and none of the parade of winners was greater than Citation.

Bred by Calumet Farm in Kentucky and trained by Hall of Famers Ben Jones and son Jimmy Jones, Citation bent a hoof after winning the 1948 Triple Crown and was laid off a year. Looking for easier rivals, his connections shipped him to California in 1951 for some easy money to crack the $1-million career earnings mark. After losing a couple of sprints at Bay Meadows, Citation was sent to Hollywood Park where he rounded into form, scoring victories in the last three races of his life.

On July 14, 1951, the Joneses managed to sneak Citation into the Gold Cup at 120 pounds. He was spectacular that day, harkening to his glory days in which he was considered by some to be the greatest horse in history. His emotional four-length victory was Citation’s grand farewell to the fans. And he finally got his million — the winner’s share put him at $1,085,760, stamping him as the first million-dollar horse.

In the 1956 Gold Cup, Swaps with the great Willie Shoemaker aboard, set a 1 ¼-mile track record of 1:58 3/5. The following year Round Table — the first three-year-old to win the race — actually equaled Swaps’ time in an easy 3 ¼-length win. The son of Princequillo was a three-time champion turf horse, 1958 champion handicap male, and 1958 Horse of the Year. Round Table also earned champion handicap male honors in the Thoroughbred Racing Association’s 1959 poll.

Coal black and full of fire, Native Diver spread his legend across seven California seasons. His devoted trainer, Buster Millerick, handled the gelding like fine china, keeping Native Diver going strong through 81 starts and 37 victories, banking $1,026,500. He won many big-money stakes in California. But above all, Native Diver will be remembered for winning three straight Hollywood Gold Cups from 1965 to 1967, running each race faster as he got older. Native Diver won each of his Gold Cups by at least 4 ¾ lengths. 

In the 1970s, Hall of Fame trainer Charlie Whittingham won five editions of the race, including four in a row from 1971 through 1974. Known as the dean of racing on the West Coast for most of the last half of the 20th century, the “Bald Eagle” won the Hollywood Gold Cup with Ack Ack (1971), Quack (1972), Kennedy Road (1973), Tree of Knowledge (1974), and Exceller (1978).  Laz Barrera trained Affirmed, the last colt to win the Triple Crown, who won the 1979 edition of the Gold Cup.

Whittingham’s Ferdinand won the Horse of the Year and champion older male awards in 1987, both in large part due to his Gold Cup win. He then won the Breeders’ Cup Classic that season over rival Alysheba. The two, after subsequent rematches, hooked up again in the 1988 Gold Cup but fell short of Cutlass Reality, with Alysheba finishing second and Ferdinand third.  

The horse that wins the Gold Cup Saturday will be led over to the winner’s circle. He should be proud to stand on the same hallowed ground as those who won the Gold Cup before him as the final winner at Hollywood Park of this great race. 

Terry Conway is a longtime contributor to Blood-Horse magazine and ESPN.com as well as a horse racing writer for national and regional magazines and prominent daily newspapers. He is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcaster. More of his work can be found at  www.call-to-post.com and www.terryconway.net.

TRIBUTE AT HOLLYWOOD TO GREAT GOLD CUP WINNER SWAPS

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