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The Good Lord willin' and the creeks don't rise," said the ads in the Los Angeles papers, and Friday began shaping up strong as Country Music Night at the harness races. The harness people at Hollywood Park paid for the ads, and KLAC, the Los Angeles radio station with the big Nashville sound, got in on it too, and together they promised there would be the goldurndest set-to you ever did see: 5,000 free western hats at the gate, three "pickin', grinnin', stompin', shoutin' " country-music bands on the loose, hundreds of square dancers warming things up beforehand and down-home prices on hot dogs (one dime) and beer (two bits).
Hollywood Park was gussied up lit to kill in red-checked gingham bunting, although the "10-gallon western hats" were made in Scranton, Pa. out of that foamy white plastic they serve coffee in nowadays. Still the nine harness races the track had said would be run did indeed come off as scheduled, and all in all it was a cut or two above your everyday night at the races.
Hollywood Park's front office, which has been observing such special nights for some time now, said Country Music Night was designed to "recall the fun and friendliness of the rural country fairs where harness racing has long been a sporting highlight." That aim seemed modest enough. At least 1,000 square dancers had gravitated to the track from all over Los Angeles, turned out in pointy-toed boots and crinoline petticoats, an hour before post time for the first race. There was no denying they recalled a different time and a different place.
Their presence was in response to an appeal which had swept through the square dancers' underground press. Apart from free tickets, the big attraction was the fact that Ray Cox would call 15 minutes of dancing for all certified square dancers who showed up. Cox, a patio pottery salesman by day, is just about the best square-dance caller in all of California, and people who got the word started volunteering in right smart numbers.
"My goodness, just look at all those fine people," Ray said proudly. "Lots of folks have the idea we're still in a barn getting drunk on corn liquor," said Ray's wife Charlotte, who is a very good dancer and caller, too. "But you don't drink before or during a dance. What you do afterwards is your own business." And though they had never rehearsed together, all moved with finesse and precision when Ray Cox called them out.
The hot-dog and beer lines were good and long, and as the people ate, dinner music was provided by Little Jimmy Dickens and his country boys from a stage beside the winner's circle. When Little Jimmy sang "Take an Old Cold Tater," his face wore that look of fixed friendship that comes to a man who has been on the road for a long, long time. Trouble was, the betting windows were as cold as Little Jimmy's tater. Toward the start of the first race Little Jimmy was asked by management to take a break. Which he did.
"You got to work within the limitations," said a philosophical man from Tommy Walker Productions, Inc., whose brainchild the night was. "Lots of things you might do around here, but if you do too much, they won't bet; if you make too much noise you scare the horses and if you let go a lot of balloons you rack up a jet." ( Hollywood Park sits just beneath a glide path of Los Angeles' International Airport. At any given moment a jet may be seen slipping through the cigarette smoke and smog above the grandstand rooftop.)
The Walker firm was first called in to help Hollywood Park in 1969 when the track faced two difficult problems. The first of these was that harness racing comes to town and in 13 weeks is gone. Only a few more weeks arc devoted to it elsewhere in the state. Thoroughbred racing, on the other hand, is available to Californians the year round, and its followers are routinely abreast of what jockeys are riding well and what mounts are winning. "In a way we're like a circus," says one of the harness men. "If we don't catch people right at the beginning of our meeting, we're all through before they get over here."
The other promotional problem confronting the track became evident shortly after it switched to night racing halfway through the 1968 season. Average attendance went up, but all the aging familiar faces were gone. Older handicappers—retired people, for example—had been loyal patrons during the afternoon, but were not coming out to the track at night.
"What we had to do—what we still have to do—is attract young people to harness racing." says Pres Jenuine, the general manager of Western Harness Racing, Inc., which runs the meeting at Hollywood Park. "We've got to get them here first of all, and then prove to them that racing is as much fun as any other sport—as much fun as the Lakers, the Rams, the Trojans, the Bruins, the Dodgers, the Kings. What a competitive sports town this is!"