By Eddie Donnally
Hollywood Park has died the death of a queen with Alzheimer’s: lengthy and slow, with past glories shadows across the mind, fading like twilight into an undeniable darkness, hard to watch by those who shared her past.
I have my own memories, of course. The Prairie Avenue Palace is home to one of my mind tingling highs, a singular low that still hurts to remember, and an end to an era in my life, one that allowed me to say a melancholy goodbye before she took her final breath.
The first time I saw the track was when I arrived by air in November 1984, checked into the nearby Marriott and got ready to cover the first Breeders’ Cup Series for the Dallas Morning News. Looking for a home town angle, I walked onto the backstretch and interviewed Vince Timphony, who trained a jet black colt owned chiefly by Texans. Though his owners had put up $360,000 to run in the first $3 million race, Wild Again’s morning line odds were 30 to one.
Timphony, a former New Orleans bar owner who grew up across the street from the Fair Grounds, empathetically told me the horse would beat the likes of Slew O Gold, Gate Dancer and Precisionist. I had my doubts. Yet I picked the horse in my newspaper selections and made a considerable wager. On Classic Eve I attended a gala at HP’s new Cary Grant Pavilion (now a casino).At the party were Grant, Elizabeth Taylor and Frank Sinatra. And in what may be one of the best races ever, Pat Day got the horse to the wire by the length of the colt’s head then held off a charge by a team of stewards who entertained a foul claim. The objection not allowed, Wild Again, paid $64.60 for a $2 bet. I went home with a fist full of Franklins. The Dallas bettors thought I could walk on water.
In October 1996, I came back. This time I stayed in a sleazy Prairie Ave. motel and arrived from Houston in an old hatchback, the third gradually depreciating vehicle I’d owned in seven months. That was the time it took me to go from hosting my own horse racing TV show and writing for the Austin American-Statesman to calling Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg and asking him for a job grooming horses. This, from the only former jockey to win an Eclipse Award for newspaper writing as well as a TV show host and handicapper of considerable reputation. The culprit most obvious was an addiction to crack cocaine. Beneath that lay adolescent sexual trauma, two divorces, a suicide attempt, stays in two psyche wards, years spent taking psychotropic medication and a battle with same-sex promiscuity.
That first night, three persons were dealing crack cocaine in the motel. I wanted to get high so badly I lay down on my room’s linoleum floor and went into a cold sweat. I got up, went to my car, got out my Bible and flat out told God, I didn’t want to die addicted and begged him to show me a verse. The Bible fell open to Isaiah 43 and my eyes fell to verse 19. “Behold I will do you a new thing. Now it will spring forth. Shall you not know it? I will even make you a road in the wilderness and rivers in the desert”
At 4:00 a.m. the next morning I met Van Berg at the stable gate and spend most of the next year living in a second floor cement sleeping room above a barn full of horses. Furniture included a dented black metal trunk, a plastic chair and baling wire strung from corner to corner to hold my clothes. My window cranked open to a muck pit a few feet below. I took my meals in the track kitchen. Though I never again touched the drug, it took months for my bent mind to straighten and my numbed soul to feel anything like emotion. After six months, I went from grooming to exercising, with Christian trainer Mike Mitchell giving me my first chance. But I was so lonely; I once took a roll of quarters to a row of outside phone booths in a driving rain at midnight and started dialing, desperate to hear the sound of a familiar voice.
I met a woman who owned a marketing company and after a green two-year-old bucked me onto one of the barn’s concrete-hard shedrows, I moved in with her. My bottom finally came on December 16, 1996 when God lit up my large courtroom holding cell in nearby San Pedro with what I believe was the Shekinah Glory. It changed my life forever.
My healing was so startling that in less than five years I was a licensed minister and the director of development for the Race Track Chaplaincy of America. And where would God put my office but in Hollywood Park’s former money room. The same one that legend says Timphony and Wild Again’s Texas owners walked out of following the first Classic with piles of winning bets stored in huge purses their wives intentionally brought to the track. I had a good run at RTCA, but on Halloween Day 2008, my tenure with the ministry ended on good terms, I packed up my desk and drove to my apartment in nearby Culver City.
I turned the page on a new era, oddly one that allowed me to be Timphony’s chaplain when he died in Arcadia’s Methodist Hospital in 2010. Today, my wife Sandi and I live in Clearwater, FL where I minister as a hospice and hospital chaplain.
I suppose the exact spots that Wild Again eked out his Classic victory could soon hold a picnic table in the proposed housing development’s park. The shedrow where I broke ribs and my cement walled room where I went to sleep smelling horse manure may become real bedrooms, including adjacent bathrooms. And my office in the grandstand’s money room will perhaps be the play area in a clubhouse where children will slide quarters into pin ball machines, totally unaware of where they stand.
The requiem for this racetrack is a eulogy for a queen dead from Alzheimer’s. For many and for me, Hollywood Park holds chisel-sharp memories of past glories, rare melancholy musings of how it might have been different, and a goodbye that in the end means nothing more than moving on to something better.
Rev. Eddie Donnally DMin.
Cell: (818) 653-3711