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What’s happening at Hialeah?

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By Bill Heller

There is action on Hialeah in 2007. On e-bay. You can buy a Hialeah glass graced by a pink flamingo for $6.99. Flamingos are also depicted on Hialeah Park linen offered at $7.99. Or maybe you’d prefer three Hialeah post cards for $3.99.

Just when you think the situation could not get worse for this majestic racetrack deemed a National Historic Landmark before closing in 2001, it does. Last December, Hialeah stopped booking weddings and private parties, its principal business since racing ended, and began demolishing its 60-year-old barns, which were ravaged by Hurricane Wilma 16 months earlier.

Yet John Brunetti, who has owned Hialeah Park since 1977, hasn’t completely pulled the plug. “It’s not over yet, but I’m not going to spend an inordinate amount of time on it if it doesn’t work,” Brunetti said in mid-January. “We’ll just try to keep pursuing a plan for development, mixed use, commercial and residential.”

But the flamingoes will stay, as well they should. Hialeah, the Seminole word for pretty prairie, was officially designated a sanctuary for the American flamingo by the Audubon Society as the only reproducing colony in North America. “We still have 300 or 400,” Brunetti said. “They don’t want to leave, and if we develop the property we’ll still keep a flock here to preserve the history and the wonderful memories of this great facility.”

And it was a great facility, the winter capital of racing, for decades. 
“There was nothing better than Hialeah in the winter,” Hall of Fame trainer Allen Jerkens said. “You felt like you were in the best possible place for racing. It was a beautiful track.”

Few, if any, would argue that. The tree-lined entrance to the track; the 16th Century French Mediterranean architecture with vines of purple bougainvillea crawling on giant trellises all across the cream-colored walls; the Renaissance Revival Clubhouse; the grand staircases; two sensational fountains; the first turf course in the United States and the unique snapshot of Thoroughbreds racing against a backdrop of palm trees and flamingos combined to create a magnificent setting. “There was a great jockeys room and race secretary’s office, too,” Jerkens said. “And it was convenient. It was fun to stable there. It was fun to race there.”

Brunetti knows. “Certainly the magnificent turf course and main track we had really captivated horsemen,” he said. “The architecture, the layout of the facilities, the paddock, the box area and the expansive structures capped off by the flamingo colony made it a spectacular place to be at and to enjoy the sport of kings.”

Hialeah’s kingdom was predicated on exclusive winter or spring racing in South Florida from January through March or March through May depending on dates assigned by the Florida Legislature. When that changed in mid-2001, when the Florida Legislature decided to let Hialeah and its two nearby South Florida competitors, Gulfstream Park and Calder Race Course, set their own dates, Hialeah’s fate was sealed. Gulfstream Park and Calder both extended their meets and Hialeah was left with one single day of exclusivity for the entire year.

Hialeah could not compete with either of its two sister tracks head-to-head. “I think everyone knows we tried desperately,” Brunetti said. “There was nothing we could do about it.” Except close.

What a monumental loss. Hialeah not only was a gorgeous track to view, but one that was used by trainers for decades to unveil their most promising and precocious two-year-olds in three-furlong races as early as January. 
Seabiscuit, Round Table, Sword Dancer, Carry Back and Cicada all debuted in three-furlong baby races at Hialeah. 
Foolish Pleasure, Forego and Gold Beauty also made career debuts there in longer sprints. Seattle Slew, Conquistador Cielo and Alydar won their three-year-old debuts at Hialeah, and Kelso and Spectacular Bid won stakes there, Kelso taking the Seminole Handicap and Spectacular Bid winning the Grade 1 Flamingo Stakes by 12 lengths. Citation captured his first four starts as a three-year-old at Hialeah, an allowance race, the Seminole and Everglades Handicaps and the Flamingo Stakes, before winning the 1948 Triple Crown. He is honored at Hialeah with a statue behind the clubhouse. “That was the whole story from a historic point, what it meant for the development of horses,” Brunetti said.

Now Hialeah will develop condos, unless the possibility of adding slot machines induces a revival of Hialeah. “I don’t know what’s going to happen with slots, but we were not included because we had not run for several years,” Brunetti said. It wouldn’t have mattered. Voters in Broward County passed a referendum allowing slots at its racetrack, Gulfstream, where they are up and running this year. Voters in Dade County voted against slots for its two tracks, Calder and Hialeah.

Brunetti, though, won’t give up. “Because I love racing and I love Hialeah,” Brunetti said. “I’m not going to say it’s over until it’s over.”

It began in the early 1920s. Hialeah’s development from a swampland of 220 acres to a signature racetrack mirrored that of the City of Hialeah, which now numbers more than 220,000 citizens.Hialeah Park Racetrack was developed by James Bright, a cattleman from Missouri, and Glenn Curtiss, an aviation pioneer, in 1921. Bright and Curtiss donated the land for community use and helped acquire land and building funds for the construction of public buildings and facilities, including a racetrack. Thanks to Owen Smith, the inventor of the “Inanimate Hare Conveyor” known as the mechanical rabbit, the Miami Kennel Club opened the first greyhound pari-mutuel track in America at Hialeah in February, 1922.

Two years later, Joseph Smoot, Bright and Curtiss established the Miami Jockey Club and constructed a racetrack and grandstand adjacent to the greyhound track. Hialeah Racetrack opened on January 15th, 1925, boasting a clubhouse, administrative building, a paddock and 21 stables. Nearby, the first Miami fronton for jai alai opened. An amusement park featuring a roller coaster and a dance hall was also developed, creating a great destination for tourists. But the Great Hurricane of September, 1926, cost the racetrack complex its roller coaster, jai-alai fronton and dog kennels.

In 1930, the racetrack was purchased by Joseph Widener, who undertook a mammoth renovation. Working with architect Lester Geisler, Widener replaced the wooden grandstand and clubhouse with concrete and steel structures. The stables, paddock area, walking ring were redone, and hundreds of royal palms and coconut trees were planted. A lake was created within the track infield and hundreds of pink flamingoes were imported from Cuba. The first flock of flamingoes flew back to Cuba the very next night, but another flock was imported and their wings were clipped. They thrived at Hialeah on a diet of shrimp, rice, ground dog biscuits and carotene oil which kept their bodies pink - they are born a grayish white and turn pink as they mature.

The renovated Hialeah Racetrack re-opened on January 14th, 1932, just 19 days after Tropical Park, a renovated dog track, opened its doors.

Tropical Park competed with Hialeah head-to-head for years until after World War II when Tropical Park switched its dates to November through Hialeah’s annual opening in early January. When Calder Race Course opened in 1971, Tropical Park switched its dates to that track.

In 1933, Hialeah opened the first turf course in America. Special trains from Palm Beach brought in fans who debarked at a special station built by Seaboard Airline Railway, and Hialeah began carving its identity as “The Track That Made Miami Famous.” Its visitors included John F. Kennedy, Winston Churchill, Harry Truman, General Omar Bradley, George Raft, Count Basie, Jimmy Durante and Joe Louis. James Bassett, the president and board chairman of Keeneland Race Course, called Hialeah “the jewel of Southern racing.”

Brunetti purchased Hialeah in 1977 from Eugene Mori, who had acquired the track from Widener’s family following his death in 1943. Brunetti will never forget the thrill of opening day that March 8th. “It was pandemonium, but it was so uplifting,” he said. “The excitement, the thrill, the people.”

Hialeah was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on March 2nd, 1979, and on January 12th, 1988, designated a National Historic Landmark by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior.

But as the 1980s wove into the ‘90s, less and less people were coming to Hialeah, and Hialeah, Gulfstream and Calder engaged in what seemed to be an annual battle over dates, which were regulated by the Florida Legislature.

Hialeah couldn’t match Gulfstream Park’s figures when they raced on simultaneous dates from 1978 through 1987. In 1989, Hialeah went head-to-head for 27 days with Calder, which had a more accessible location just 10 miles from Hialeah. Hialeah averaged 2,447 fans and $208,490 in handle while Calder averaged 7,240 fans and a daily handle of $941,260.

Brunetti told reporters he was losing an estimated $68,000 a day competing with Calder.Yet Hialeah kept going. In 2000, Hialeah was allowed to hold its meeting at Gulfstream Park because of Hialeah’s poor track condition. When it was over, Gulfstream claimed Brunetti shortchanged the track.
Hialeah re-opened in 2001, and conducted racing through May 22nd, when a crowd of 3,280 watched the final day of racing there. Bugler Mike Ferrios played “Taps” to announce the arrival of horses on the track for the 10th and final race that day, captured by Cheeky Miss. “It was like going to a funeral,” Brunetti said.

Ironically, handle for the 2001 meet was a 17 percent increase from 1999, the last meet actually held at Hialeah. Track officials called the 2001 meet the best in Hialeah’s history.
Representative Rene Garcia, a Republican from Hialeah, tried unsuccessfully to pass an amendment which would have delayed the date of deregulation of the racetracks, which kicked in on July 1st, 2001. “I grew up around this track, and it not only means a lot to me, it means a lot to the people back home,” he said at the time. “This track is the gem of Dade County.”

It was until it closed. Hialeah’s ability to remain open for simulcasting was stripped because it had no live racing. Hialeah was finished. “Since that happened, everyone is saying, `What a shame,’” Brunetti said. “I keep telling people, `Where were you when we needed help?’ That goes to the horsemen, the patrons, the media. Everyone remembers how important Hialeah was.”

Jerkens does. He remembers how thrilled he was to be granted stalls for the prestigious Hialeah meet in 1952. “Most of the time before that we were stabled at Tropical Park,” he said. “Hialeah was all the big stables.”

Now Hialeah teeters on oblivion. Working in the track’s favor is that the zoning which would allow thousands of residential housing units to be built on the Hialeah site is not in place. Nor are the requisite regional approvals for large-scale retail development. And both the City of Hialeah and the state’s historic preservation boards have gone on record opposing massive retail development of the site.

So maybe there’s a faint chance of racing returning to the flamingoes.

“There’s always hope,” Brunetti said.