On a sunny afternoon this June, along with thousands of other people, I was at Hollywood Park Racetrack cheering on the winning race of my friend Jerry Moss' extraordinary horse, Zenyatta, which took its 17th straight race in stride. It's a wonderful animal with loving owners. Afterwards, I walked over to the Hollywood Park Casino...to get something to eat! I am probably one of the few people in the world who goes there mainly for the food. I am not much of gambler. When I'm in Las Vegas meandering through a casino, I'll invariably buy a handful of $5 chips at a blackjack table and play a few hands in my inexperienced way...usually stopping at '16' unless the dealer has an ace or face card staring up, in which case I'll draw and invariably go over the limit. Passing a roulette table with a few chips in my hand, I'll drop them on the '4', which I consider my lucky number. Never have won anything. Yet gambling intrigues me mightily, and has ever since I was a teenager one summer long ago in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. waiting tables in a hotel with a betting parlor...and was asked to run out to the race track each afternoon to lay off some cash bets for them, earning a few bucks in the process. On the last day of the season, a famed jockey I had been waiting on came into the dining room and whispered to me, "Bet on Coaltown tomorrow." Which I did, most of my summer earnings, and won a few thousand dollars to pay for my NYU pre-med education. (Went home on the bus to Brooklyn with the money pinned to my underwear...and the hell my father gave me for endangering my summer's earnings, but I suspect he was secretly proud of me for this unusual achievement.)
Ivy Chu sponsors the Pier de Sol event for the Special Olympics
My current connection to any gambling environment is highlighted by the fact that some years ago my friend Chris Meow and a brilliant, forceful woman named Ivy Chu asked me to be on the restaurant committee for Ivy's pet charity, the Pier de Sol event of the Special Olympics held every October on the Santa Monica Pier, chaired by Gov. and Mrs. Schwartzeneggar in honor of Maria's mother, Eunice, who founded S.O. I'll be writing more about this event as it gets closer, but save the date of Sunday, October 10th, to attend a smashing food-fun-and-games party at the pier. (The Special Olympics Southern California makes a positive impact on children and adults with mental retardation through a year-long program of sports training and competition for thousands of individuals.)
LA Mayor Villaraigosawith Ivy and Leo Chu and a charity event
Ivy and her astute husband, Leo Chu, operate the legendary Hollywood Park Casino, and in the course of this friendship I have had many occasions to visit their casino at 3883 W. Century Blvd., Inglewood (323) 330-2800. (Take La Cienega south to Manchester, left to Prairie and then a right to Century and the casino. It's just three miles east of the Los Angeles airport and next to the Great Western Forum.) One of my close buddies, Larry, is an inveterate poker player, so he is always there for the multiplicity of tournaments played regularly, with Limit and No-Limit Hold'em, Sit 'n'Go single table tournaments and the like (I have no idea what any of this means) ....Everything for the player's pleasure and convenience, according to the casino's astute V.P./General Manager, Taro Ito. The only time I have played poker there is when they were trying out the PokerPro computerized tables...an experiment which didn't pan out. One of the casino's amazing managers, Phyllis Caro, is a compatriot from our mutual home town of Flatbush in Brooklyn, N.Y. Open 24 hours a day (and night), they offer a multiplicity of gambling opportunities, including Pai Gow, Blackjack and Baccarat, Horseracing, Bingo and the like.
As I mentioned, I may be the only person who goes to Hollywood Park mainly for the food, but it's true...Taro hired talented Chef David McGrath some years ago and he sees to it that the gambling patrons are well-fed with tableside service for breakfast, lunch or dinner 24 hours a day! You can dine from special trays that roll right up to the table...and players enjoy an extensive food and drink menu at deeply discounted prices. Did I mention that Pink's Hot dogs has one of their few outside venues here at the casino, an old-fashioned hot dog stand in the lobby...along with the Derby Deli and, yes, even a Taco Al Carbon Cart.
Pink's Hot dogs are a stellar attraction at the Casino's food court!
I like to adjourn to the sit-down dining area adjacent to the poker floor; replete with imported travertine tile, black granite and a large horse-racing themed mural, where I invariably order either the Peking Duck or the Cabernet-braised Lamb Shank, both with choice of soup or salad, rice or potato, veggies and bread ..for around $5. If they have the New Mexico Chili Linguini, that goes on my tray. The adjacent Derby Deli offers fresh, cooked-to-order items like a Philly Cheese Steak, Mongolian Beef, and several daily specials. My favorite: the Prime Rib Sandwich from the carving station. All of this is, of course, after I have downed a Pink's Hot Dog with yellow mustard and sauerkraut. As V.P. Ito told me, "This is a huge customer service improvement, since the majority of our patrons play here on a regular basis. The variety of the 50 menu choices we offer means that the player can enjoy a different high-quality meal at a great price every time he visits."
While I read that the racetrack adjacent to it may eventually be torn down for a housing project, I am assured by Leo that the casino will be rebuilt and become even more cutting-edge modern than ever. Right now it is a huge complex employing several thousand people in its various facets. I once took Penny's mom from Seattle to see the Bingo operation on the top floor of the adjacent structure, seating a thousand people playing a fast-paced game which I could hardly follow. I have actually had a terrific massage here for a painful lower back, worked out in its health club, and in its gift shop I just bought a Zenyatta poster for my office wall. The casino is a friendly venue for the movie-TV production operations in Hollywood, and is often used as a location for shooting films and commercials.
I once mentioned to Leo Chu that my first visit to the track had been many years ago, in the company of my then publicity client, Steve McQueen, who had been invited to attend the Owner's Box by a strong-willed woman named Marj Everett. All I can remember of that is seeing Cary Grant at the next table. Zowee! Leo and Ivy had been operating the nearby Crystal Park Casino before taking over this operation. They are legendary for hosting large, lavish dinner parties at the restaurants owned by the 35+ chefs who enthusiastically cooperate with us at the Special Olympics Pier de Sol event in October.
As I have said before, the best bet in poker is the delicious food at the Hollywood Park Casino. Here I come!
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