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).
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.
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
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.
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
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!"