Obviously, the Del Mar Racetrack is the place to go if you live in San Diego and want to see thoroughbreds run. The racing season only goes from mid-July through early September, and normally, that’s more than enough horse racing for me. I’m lucky if I get to the track every year or two.
But in July, I heard Scott Simon talking to Seabiscuit biographer Laura Hillenbrand about Zenyatta, the 6-year-old mare who has won more consecutive races than any other horse in history. Zenyatta’s story so dazzled me that I made sure not to miss her race August 7 in Del Mar. There she made all her signature moves: danced her little dance in the paddock, started out so far behind the other horses that she seemed sure to lose, then turned on the afterburners to catch up and surge past the other horses, beating Rinterval by a neck. In the final seconds of that race, I was emitting a scream that would normally have melted eardrums but was barely discernible amidst the noise generated by everyone around me.
It was thrilling, and when my friend Rose secured box seats for Zenyatta’s farewell performance in California this past Saturday at Hollywood Park, I jumped at the chance to see her race again — and to visit Hollywood Park for the first time ever. From the start, the outing felt charmed. Though Hollywood Park is just three miles from LAX, and I stopped in Carlsbad to pick up my friend Leslie, we arrived and parked barely two hours after I pulled out of my garage. The weather was glorious, summery but cooled by a breeze. When we made our way up to the concourse level, I felt currents of excitement pulsing through the crowd.
Here’s what struck me most about Hollywood Park: Built in 1938, some of the bars and and seating arrangements still have the feel of that vintage. The track itself is not as pretty as our surfside venue, but what is? Still, I appreciated the live flamingoes in the infield and the jumbo jets descending westward overhead. An afternoon at Hollywood Park is also a substantially cheaper date than where the turf meets the surf. There’s free parking, $5 preferred parking, and $10 valet service (versus Del Mar’s $8 general and $20 valet parking fees). You can’t get a reserved seat in Del Mar for less than $16, and to sit at a table for 4 runs at least $100, whereas a Hollypark box seating 4 can be had for just $8. (You also have to pay $10 per person for admission to the concourse area.)
The track struck us as missing out by making it so hard to buy a drink (long lines; insufficient bartenders). But Zenyatta’s race was intoxicant enough. For the 19th straight time, she won by just a neck, after making us all gasp at her lollygagging — and scream at the seeming effortlessness of her catchup.
Now just one final race looms between her and her retirement: this year’s Breeder’s Cup November 6 at Churchill Downs.
The days of Hollywood Park, too, are numbered. With many strikes against it (including other opportunities to gamble via off-track betting, the state lottery, and more), attendance has dived in recent years, and plans emerged for a mixed development on the site, to include shops, restaurants, a hotel, office space, thousands of residential units, blah, blah, blah. The recession seems to have forestalled that — but you have to ask: for how long? I’m glad I’ve seen it while I could.