Shock And Awe At Hollywood Park: December 7, 1997

The date of December 7 is my signpost for both of two powerful psychological responses to witnessed events. Shock and awe are two of the few emotions that immerse us in the present moment while remolding our sense of time.

Seventy-six years ago was the occasion that President Franklin Roosevelt would immortalize as the date which will live in infamy. Today, others will discuss historical details and everlasting impact of Pearl Harbor. The shock of horrific events slows down one’s perception of time to the narrow focus of now and pushes aside memories and future concerns. Awe is another emotion that anchors one to the present when witnessing something that one has never experienced.

When I awoke 20 years ago today on Sunday, December 7, 1997, I expected to witness the greatness of Sharp Cat in the Grade 2 Bayakoa Handicap at Hollywood Park. I was primed to watch an exceedingly unusual match race. Bob Mieszerski’s recent Los Angeles Times article was fresh in my mind as I drove to the “Track of the Lakes and Flowers” in Inglewood, Calif. He discussed the two-horse entry by Ron McAnally, four-time winner of the Bayakoa Handicap, and the possibility that only one would run. I was excited to witness my very first match race. Little did I know hours before the race that a match race would not occur or be the day’s most awe-inspiring moment.

UC-Berkeley professor Dacher Keltner has studied the emotion of awe. “Awe is the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your understanding of the world,” Keltner writes. “The science is proving to be clear: Momentary experiences of awe stimulate wonder and curiosity.”

After moving to California earlier that year, Hollywood was the first West Coast racecourse that I visited and became the site of many memorable days with friends witnessing special horse racing. While being present for the Breeders’ Cup earlier that autumn and subsequently watching California Chrome winning the King Glorious Stakes on the beautiful oval’s final day of racing, nothing would match the moment of awe that I would experience within hours of the only walkover I’ve seen with my own eyes.

Keltner asks, “Why did awe became part of our species’ emotional repertoire during seven million years of hominid evolution? A preliminary answer is that awe binds us to social collectives and enables us to act in more collaborative ways that enable strong groups, thus improving our odds for survival.”

The December 7 opener was the Bayakoa Handicap with the singularity of one brilliant D. Wayne Lukas trained filly recording an unrequired fast time in Hollywood Park’s first walkover of 1:42.68 for 1 1/16 miles.

Less than two hours later, I am standing near the finish line at the start of the fourth race for $8,000 claimers – literally the other end of Hollywood’s quality spectrum at the time.

With what began as an easily forgettable race rapidly became one that turf historians would never forget. The late Luke Krytbosch called Tina Celesta’s diminishing lead to the two closers in Chans Pearl and Cool Miss Ann.

In the aftermath of the first triple dead heat at Hollywood Park in 40 years, fans quickly transitioned from the self-interested bunch trying to determine if their tickets were good to a collective pondering who dead-heated. While the placing judges and stewards worked the same question, we all became focussed in the moment to try to understand who won. At that instant, Sharp Cat became a distant memory. Although equally rare as a walkover, the triple dead heat was much more awesome.

Following what seemed like an eternity, jockeys Omar Berrio, Matt Garcia, and J. G. Matos posed with jubilant smiles in sharing history.

When watching the replay now, I feel a sense of amazement but nothing like the moment that afternoon which temporarily made me forget why most people recall the date of December 7. In short, it was totally awesome to be within a hundred feet of a triple dead heat.

Although the triple dead heat was not as significant as the one in the 1944 Carter Handicap, witnessing the rarity live stopped time in a way that no photograph could. In that instant, I was not thinking about the infrequency. I was just lost in the realization that I saw something that I had never seen or may never see again. In Thoroughbred racing, triple dead heats occur approximately five times a century. For an afternoon, 8,431 random strangers were united, socializing, and recalling the unicorn event.

Walkovers are equally rare as triple dead heats. Famous walkovers include Citation’s Pimlico Special and Spectacular Bid’s Woodward. While I don’t have an exhaustive list of walkovers, the solo processions happen less than once in a blue moon. The anticipated certain outcome of a walkover doesn’t inspire that powerful emotional response as the unexpected.

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.” – Albert Einstein

Arguably, witnessing an event in person can be more awe-inspiring than watching a recording later. While seeing it live, you are surprised by the unexpected outcome that captures your mind. I believe the triple dead heat was more impactful to those in attendance than those who watched on the 11 o’clock news. Watching shocking or awesome events are often shared with the phrase, “I watched it live.” When one makes that statement, it is understood that a unique time stopping experience was had.

“A walkover and a triple dead heat the same day,” Richard Mandella said to Bill Christine of the Los Angeles Times. “That’s a million-to-one shot.” Without a doubt, I feel like a millionaire to have experienced that unifying sense of awe on December 7.

I encourage you to attend racing at the track, for you never know when time will stand still for you to be collectively awestruck.

Stu Slagle is racing secretary at Woodbine and previously served in numerous positions throughout North America

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