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Hollywood Park: Bugler Jay Cohen looks back at 25 years of calling the races

Along with the coach horn, Jay Cohen also plays a herald trumpet, seen here.
Along with the coach horn, Jay Cohen also plays a herald trumpet, seen here.
Kevin Ferguson/KPCC

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This Sunday, Hollywood Park — the 75-year-old horse racing track in Inglewood — will host its final race. The park's closure comes as its fan base ages and attendance dwindles. Before the final race kicks off, fans for one last time will hear the music of Jay Cohen, the track's official bugler. KPCC's Kevin Ferguson reports.

The "Call to the Post" is the eight-second song that starts every horse race. Jay Cohen says he's played it more than 87,000 times.

For 25 years, Cohen, 57, has performed the call to the post at race tracks all over Southern California: Santa Anita, Los Alamitos, Hollywood Park. For Cohen, it's an opportunity to people watch.

"When I walk on the track, it's very interesting, because then, I watch the people walking towards the tunnel cause they want to watch the horses come out," Cohen said. 

RELATEDFarewell Hollywood Park: A look back at the historic track in archival photos

Cohen came to L.A. from New Jersey in 1987 for his wife's job. At the time he was music director at a local high school and a lifelong trumpet player. Moving to L.A. provided him an opportunity to freelance.

He performed a few random gigs, studied with a few veteran Los Angeles trumpet players. Cohen stumbled into performing at race tracks through a referral from a colleague. Cohen thought to himself, "Well, what does someone do with a trumpet at a race track?"

Today, Cohen's the default bugler for race tracks all over California. And he isn't just the bugler for Hollywood Park, but in many ways he's the bugler for Hollywood — you can see him in the 2003 film "Seabiscuit."

Technically, though, he doesn't play a bugle. Depending on the gig, he'll either use a coach horn ("a 5-foot-long straight horn," Cohen said) or a herald trumpet, basically a longer version of a standard trumpet.

Call it anything you like, it's how Cohen makes his living: at races, parties and other events. His horn was made for him in Anaheim. His uniform — a bright red jacket that looks like a Victorian take on Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band — is custom made as well.  

Cohen's performed at Hollywood Park since the beginning of his bugling career. He likes the scenery, the lakes. He likes seeing planes fly overhead from nearby LAX. But mostly he likes its history — it's Hollywood Park, after all.

Movies stars and celebrities 

"The thing that was great about Hollywood Park were the amount of movie stars and celebrities," said Cohen. "I remember the early days: There was always Milton Berle, ... Jack Lemmon."

Cohen remembers playing happy birthday for Fay Wray, the star of "King Kong." He wore a gorilla mask with a hole cut in the mouth, because how else could he use the horn?

The news that Hollywood Park was closing came last May, though it had been rumored ever since the racetrack changed owners in 2005. In the last 30 years, attendance has dropped 90 percent. Cohen was devastated. He's taking out a new mortgage on his own home to adjust for the loss in income, but he says he's one of the lucky ones.

"I have some very good friends that I've made from working there for 25 years that are looking to be unemployed," said Cohen. "They've been looking for jobs now since May and have been unable to find anything."

During our interview, Cohen's optimism shines through constantly — this was despite having just performed at a memorial service at Santa Anita Park. When I first called him, he said he was happy to talk with me. But he wished the media had been there to report on the good times, too. 

"I have never cried because something's over," said Cohen. "I only laugh because it happened."