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Raging tempest over trotting
Melvin Durslag
April 21, 1969
Harness racing at night has won routine acceptance in many areas, but when it came to Southern California it made new enemies of old friends
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April 21, 1969

Raging Tempest Over Trotting

Harness racing at night has won routine acceptance in many areas, but when it came to Southern California it made new enemies of old friends

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For a community of only 95,000, Inglewood, Calif. is richly blessed in sports. It is the home of a racetrack that leads the nation in average daily attendance, Hollywood Park. Hollywood proper is 22 miles away, but the name seems a better bet to the track operators than, say, Inglewood Downs.

Inglewood also has big-league franchises in pro basketball and hockey, though both are named " Los Angeles." The city does have a cemetery called Inglewood Park, but the odds are the name will one day be changed to " Beverly Hills."

If sports have brought excitement to Inglewood, they also have brought heartburn. The town finds itself in the middle of a big commotion it did not invite. For the last year, Thoroughbred owners, trainers and breeders have been embroiled in a snarling fight with Hollywood Park and its lessee, Western Harness Racing Association. The argument recently went to the polls, and the next stop could be the grand jury. In connection with it are lawsuits totaling $7 million.

Jack Kent Cooke, owner of the Los Angeles Lakers and Kings, whose home, The Forum, lies adjacent to the racetrack, fought for awhile as a confederate of the Thoroughbred horsemen. Today he not only has left them but has joined the other side. "In this war," says one Thoroughbred owner, " Cooke represents the Italian army."

The principal casus belli was the decision of Hollywood Park last year to permit night harness racing on its grounds. The track's motive was ill-disguised: for 78 nights of trotting, not concurrent with flat racing, Hollywood Park's rental could be as high as $1 million a year. Thoroughbred horsemen contend that Hollywood Park has betrayed them. By opening its plant to the sulkies at night, the track, they say, is selling out the Thoroughbreds and jeopardizing the $250 million breeding industry in California. They argue that night trotting is a threat to the flat racers, has no business at a major Thoroughbred track and that Hollywood Park, a longtime opponent of night racing, had promised to reject such activity at its plant.

In retaliation for this "betrayal" the Thoroughbred horsemen have formed an association called Oak Tree and will run a 20-day daytime Thoroughbred meeting during the fall at Santa Anita in competition with the trotters at Hollywood. They had no trouble renting the grounds from Santa Anita officials, who once had formed an alliance with Hollywood Park to resist night harness racing. The two leased their facilities to Western Harness for daytime trotting, sharing the rent equally. Now, Hollywood not only has made a deal for night trotting but is keeping all the rent. Santa Anita stockholders are upset.

Disturbed by "defamatory" comments on the part of the Thoroughbred horsemen, Hollywood Park has brought suit for $3.1 million against six of their leaders. Charging "conspiracy," Western Harness has sued the same group for $3.9 million. Until 1967, racing after sunset was illegal in California. For more than 20 years Western Harness operated during the day, hoping all along to promote legislation permitting the sport at night. Observing the population growth of horseplaying Los Angeles County, the sulky operators envisioned nightly handles as high as $3 million. Toward that happy eventuality they purchased 300 acres near a suburb of Los Angeles called La Puente, planning to build a modern 5/8ths-of-a-mile track.

What the trotting people didn't reckon with was the extent of Thoroughbred power, a pervading presence at the capital in Sacramento. Hollywood Park and Santa Anita stood firmly opposed to night racing and as time went on they gathered as allies the Los Angeles Dodgers, California Angels, San Francisco Giants and Jack Kent Cooke, along with theater owners and bowling alley proprietors. All contributed money to the fight. Walter O'Malley recalls that Hollywood Park was the "spiritual leader" of the group. "It used to call the meetings," he says.

In 1963, Jim Stewart, general manager of Hollywood, testified before the State Assembly Efficiency Committee in Sacramento against an amendment that would legalize night racing. In 1967 at a stockholders' meeting he remarked that Inglewood did not want night racing and that any attempt to stage it at Hollywood Park would seriously jeopardize the track's zoning variance and the continuance of Thoroughbred racing.

When Jack Kent Cooke chose the Inglewood location for his $16 million Forum, he said he had the assurance of Inglewood city officials and Hollywood Park that night racing would not be allowed next door. "I would have been insane," said Cooke, "to build there without the guarantee that we could operate free of night confusion at Hollywood Park."

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