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Monday, February 3, 2014

Street Names

The horrific winter we’ve been having, with bitter cold temperatures and massive snowfalls (thankfully, not at the same time so far), presents the perfect excuse for hibernation. In my case, since I’m on sabbatical researching and writing a book on the history of horse racing in western Pennsylvania, I’ve been able to enjoy spending hours and hours poring over historical documents and maps, happily discovering little gems of information. When it’s all done, I hope to have something relatively comprehensive and hopefully insightful to say about the sport’s history in the region, but for now I’d like to just occasionally throw out some observations and elicit feedback on my thoughts and findings.

Today’s musing is on street names. Huh? Well, one of my research trajectories is on the redevelopment of former race track sites—for what reasons did specific tracks meet their demise, and how was the land subsequently used? Not surprisingly, a number apparently came to be used for new “streetcar suburbs” around the turn of the century, such as Westmont Race Track here in Johnstown (Cambria County) which, after its demise in 1905, was developed into an upscale neighborhood. The same thing happened in McKees Rocks (Allegheny County), where the driving park closed in 1900, becoming the streetcar suburb of West Park. When the Homewood Driving Park (Allegheny County) closed in 1899, prominent businessman Jacob J. Vandergrift hired Frederick Law Olmsted to develop it into the Homewood Driving Park subdivision.

Not sure why this should surprise me, but one thing that did was how often the locations of former tracks lingered in street names, even in areas where subdivisions were not developed. In particular, the numerous times I found “Race Street” appearing where tracks once stood, not just in Homewood and McKees Rocks, but also in little towns like Ridgway (Elk County) and Brookville (Jefferson County), both of which had dirt courses in 1895, but no longer. The second most-found street name: “Derby” as in Derby Alley in McKees Rocks and Derby Street in Johnstown’s Roxbury neighborhood, former location of Luna Park which folded in 1904. I’m just beginning my research so who knows where this will take me, but what a cool, and ultimately sad, thought—that long-forgotten sporting venues, once so vital to communities both large and small, live on in name even if their histories are now nearly forgotten.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Ghosts of Hollywood Past

We knew the day of reckoning was coming, but that didn’t make it any easier to say good-bye to legendary Hollywood Park this weekend. Strictly from a historical standpoint, its closing unequivocally marks the end of a glorious era—a time when horse racing was fashionable, when the race track was a place to be and be seen, when the “Sport of Kings” held relevance to the common man as well as the privileged. The nostalgic final hurrah of the track that once saw the likes of Seabiscuit, Citation, Swaps, Round Table, Gallant Man, Native Diver, Affirmed, John Henry and Lava Man—as well as Happy Issue, Busher, Bewitch, Royal Heroine, Megahertz, Flawlessly, Princess Rooney, Bayakoa, Paseana, Azeri, Nashoba’s Key, and Zenyatta—felt more like a dirge than a swansong. What a contrast to the absolutely electric atmosphere of Nakayama Racecourse in Japan earlier in the day, where 124,000 on-track spectators rejoiced in Orfevre’s victory in the JPN-G1 Arima Kinen

As fans of horse racing, we continually bemoan the declining presence of our sport, in the media and in the national consciousness. Don’t get me wrong: there are all kinds of problems to be dealt with—both real and mere perceptions—but when you watch events like the Arima Kinen, the Arc or the Melbourne Cup, you realize that no matter how “modern” our machine-driven society becomes and how far we continue to move away from our agrarian past and reliance on the horse, there is something wonderful about watching these beautiful animals do what come naturally to them—run. Gathering together in large groups to observe, to celebrate, Nature’s pure gifts of speed, endurance and competitiveness is seemingly innate for human beings. 

So, why can’t American race tracks get it right? Why are places like Bay Meadows and Hollywood Park closed or closing, and grand dames like Hialeah relegated to mere quarter-horse racing? I’m not the first person to say it, but I’ve been among those who have been arguing for it longest: we need LESS RACING in this country! We are diluting the “product”—racing—by overkill. Mies van der Rohe’s well-repeated adage about architecture is apt here: “less is more.” How will it ever come about? Sadly, it looks like by attrition. Only when the last track is shuttered will it be too late to change course.

As an all-too fitting footnote to Hollywood Park’s legend, did anyone happen to notice that the final Hollywood Park winner, Woodman’s Luck—a horse previously most famous for a YouTube video showing him biting Romeo Royale in a race at Del Mar—has an eerie association with Hollywood’s past? More specifically, his third dam Royal Strait Flush was a full-sister to the great undefeated filly Landaluce, a daughter of Seattle Slew who won her debut at Hollywood on July 3, 1982—and was buried in Hollywood’s infield, after her death from a viral infection, just before the Hollywood Futurity later that year. A track-record-setting (1:08), 21-length victory in the 6-furlong Hollywood Lassie brought Landaluce to the attention of Sports Illustrated; the demise of Hollywood Park will likely go unmentioned. Her grave will be relocated to her birthplace, Spendthrift Farm in Kentucky, to be replaced by a housing, retail and entertainment development. Ah, isn’t progress grand? 

P.S. You may have noticed (if you were once a regular reader of this blog) that it’s been quite some time since my last posting—well over a year, in fact. My form line would read “first up off a long layoff” so be patient with me as I warm-up my blogging voice. I haven’t been entirely gone—if you are a reader of Hello Race Fans! (if you aren’t, why not?!?), you know that I have been active there all year, handicapping the Kentucky Derby/Oaks prep races in the spring, and handling the weekly round-up feature. To be honest, though, a pervasive malaise towards racing afflicted me much of 2013, with a near-constant disillusionment resulting from the Derby/Oaks fervor (and its fallout) and the general lack of great stars to root for. Oh, there were definitely some, but as quickly as they excited, they disappointed. I’m hoping 2014 will be a damn sight better, don’t you?