Sunday in the Park | ParkRecord.com

Sunday in the Park

Teri Orr, Park Record columnist

The HBO show is filled with ghosts. Which turns out to be a problem for me. I have a difficult time concentrating on the plot at hand or the exact characters. I understand the time frame is meant to be the present but I am lost, lost, lost in the past. In a past of actors who have played other roles that come floating through the characters they are trying to play here. And a cast of characters who were my family and their friends and how many formative summers I spent dressing up to go to The Track.

I understood Luck from a very early age.

In the late ’50s there were no rock concerts or NASCAR races. The glamorous people were those folks who had Hollywood attached to their names. Either from movies or emerging television shows. Probably there was organized crime involved and all kinds of seedy stuff a young girl didn’t have the eyes to see. What I knew was that the best part of my summer vacation was the two weeks I spent with my grandparents who had a beach house in Oceanside and a "box" at the racetrack in Del Mar.

"Box" didn’t mean a place high above the crowd, glassed in and decorated like some fancy hotel room. "Box" just meant the checkered tablecloth and canvas chairs that put you right on the rail in the finish line area, so close that if the track was wet, mud might spray up and hit you in the face. There were real trumpeters who let you know, musically, you had to place your final bets. And booming announcers who shouted, "The horses are in the gate!"

As a young girl age eight is the year I remember best it was heady stuff. The box next to ours held Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. On the other side were the Lennon Sisters, and just past them, Jimmy Durante, and past him, Mickey Rooney. And, of course, Bing Crosby was on hand. Crosby was the president of the track, which had been built in the late ’30s as some kind of WPA project. The place was filthy with men in white hats and ties and wide-legged pants. And women in light-colored, smart suits some even in daring, Katherine Hepburn-style smart trousers. All in heels.

I know this, exactly, because in my living room are the black and white racetrack photos from my grandparents. Pictures of them in the winner’s circle with their friends, Lane Bridgford, the trainer, and Johnny Longden, the legendary jockey. There is a photo from the winner’s circle in August 1, 1951, with a horse named "Measured Time" that won the second race, five and half furloughs, in one minute and six seconds. I was born that year. I found no family photos marking that event.

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What I remember from my eighth summer, and maybe summers before and after, was the thrill of The Track. Learning how to handicap a race. Watching the horses walk in the paddock before the race. Picking a horse based on the color of the silks they wore, or the names of their parents, or who was riding, or who the trainer was. There were cigarettes and grown-ups’ drinks and endless Shirley Temples. And Shirley Temple.

For a little girl whose mother was already on her second (of six) divorces, who had seen her father once in two years, time at the track, where the surf met the turf in Del Mar, was magical. Surreal. And my grandparents, who spent the first half of their marriage dirt poor, had done well by this point: he as a distributor for Standard Oil; she as a real-estate saleswoman. They loved each other and they loved their life. And they loved me.

Other kids came back from camps with popsicle-stick crafts and tales of mosquito bites and swimming all the way out to The Raft. I came back with fanciful tales of meeting movie stars and a fistful of multicolored tickets that read Win, Place or Show. No one believed me, so I learned to talk about sand castles I made at the beach and fireworks over the ocean. That was lucky enough.

The current HBO show, called Luck, starring Dustin Hoffman and featuring such a strong cast Nick Nolte, Dennis Farina, Jill Hennessy takes place not in my past but in the present. The title turns out to be a heavy-handed oxymoron. I am confused by Hoffman’s thuggish, humorless character. As an organized crime boss, he is colorless. Nick Nolte is bloated and nearly unrecognizable as a trainer/owner. Jill Hennessy, who plays a vet, is sleeping with a trainer played by John Ortiz. There are seedy characters and folks clearly down on their luck, all waiting for the big payoff that comes with crossing the finish line.

I get it. But so far, I don’t get it. With such a strong cast and such great potential, the best thing I can say is that the photography occasionally putting you in the saddle or the jockey on your back is stunning.

I want to like this show. But maybe I just can’t get past all the ghosts that crowd the screen and my living room. What it has done is remind me what an impression grandparents can have. I need to refine mine. Maybe this very Sunday in the Park …

Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the director of the organization that provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.