May 3rd, 2008

carole lombard 06
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And they're off! (The horses, Carole, and Bing)



Did you know the Kentucky Derby is being run today? Do you care?

It wasn't long ago that a lot of people cared, far more than apparently do today. True, Churchill Downs will be packed to the gills with plenty of VIPs; the Derby is where actress Melissa Joan Hart, now 32 and expecting her second child (gee, that makes me feel old!), met her future husband, a rock musician. But horse racing -- not just the thoroughbreds, but the harness trotters and pacers, too -- has lost much of its cachet. It's still part of the American sports culture, but, like professional boxing, it's declined into a niche activity.

The primary reason, one guesses, is there are now so many more places than the track where one can gamble. There's Las Vegas, Atlantic City and sundry other casino locations; state lotteries just about everywhere; and Internet wagering, buth legal and illegal. Many tracks, such as Charles Town in West Virginia's eastern panhandle, might be out of business today were it not for slots.

But in the 1930s, racetracks were popular and successful venues -- and those in southern California and just over the border in Mexico were popular with the motion picture crowd, adding Hollywood glamour to the sport of kings. Here are two photos of Carole Lombard, who occasionally visited the track and -- we hope for her sake -- usually cashed 'em, not trashed 'em.

First is Lombard, in the final months of her marriage to William Powell (Jan. 24, 1933, to be exact), enjoying a day at Agua Caliente in Mexico alongside actor Ernest Truex and his wife:



Fast forward to 1940 and Hollywood Park. Lombard's married to Clark Gable now, and don't you just love that look on his face? (By the way, who is the woman alongside Carole -- an actress, perhaps?)



And speaking of horse racing, we should note that today marks the 105th anniversary of the birth of a great entertainer, horse enthusiast and good friend of Lombard's, Bing Crosby. In 1937, Crosby and some Hollywood pals bought some land near the coastline about 20 miles north of San Diego and founded the Del Mar racetrack, which is still going strong today thanks in part to its beautiful setting (this year's season will open in July). Here's Bing collecting the first ticket on opening day:



I've written in the past about what a pivotal figure Crosby was in American popular culture, something that tends to be overlooked (http://community.livejournal.com/carole_and_co/41986.html). If you're unfamiliar with Crosby's music beyond "White Christmas," pick up one of the many compilation CDs on the market, preferably one featuring tracks from the early '30s, his most vital and jazz-oriented period. (He recorded with both the Mills Brothers and Duke Ellington's orchestra at this time, and was extremely popular in the black community.) You'll become a Crosby fan, too.

We'll leave you with a still of Bing and Carole from the one film they made together, 1934's "We're Not Dressing":



In tomorrow's entry, we'll salute an entertainer who was influenced by Bing...so much that he rose to stardom by adopting a slightly different style, avoiding becoming yet another Crosby imitator.
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