Mourned often recently, once-grand Hialeah won't stay dead

January 12, 1992|By Randy Moss | Randy Moss,Dallas Morning News

HIALEAH, Fla. -- A few minutes after 3 p.m., the world's largest procreating flock of pink flamingos took to the sky. Gliding majestically 200-strong above the lush wildlife sanctuary, the flamingos executed a loose figure-eight and touched down again at their lifelong habitat, a lagoon beside clusters of palm trees.

One would expect to witness such a celebration of nature only in an endangered species shelter or an Audubon Society newsreel.

But this was another Saturday at the horse races at Hialeah Park, the only race track in America where thoroughbreds are sometimes a distraction.

Its name has been changed to Hialeah Park and Race Course, at least in advertisements, and this magnificent 220-acre paradise uniquely qualifies as both. Ever heard of betting coming in second to bird watching at the track?

"They'll never build another track like this one," said Hialeah's president, John Brunetti.

Unfortunately, tradition and beauty no longer ensure a race track's survival. Just as the flamingos in its infield have struggled to survive changing times, 66-year-old Hialeah has faced extinction more than once while battling to secure its position among three thoroughbred tracks in the competitive South Florida pari-mutuel market.

The latest crisis was in 1989, when a lack of business forced Brunetti to pull the plug on a 158-day season after 27 days. Most predicted the silence would be permanent, an ignoble obituary for a grand landmark listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

But like a heavyweight with a strong chin, Hialeah is bouncing to its feet again.

A two-month, do-or-die season that ended recently has been surprisingly successful, highlighted by the Flamingo Stakes for 3-year-old Kentucky Derby hopefuls. The state's political powers, whose frustration and indifference two years ago nearly spelled Hialeah's doom, appear to be on the verge of coming to its rescue.

"Hialeah means as much to Florida as Disney World or the Orange Bowl," Brunetti said. "I think people realize that they don't want to lose a treasure. And this is not only a state treasure. This is a national treasure."

*

Hialeah opened in 1925 as neither a sanctuary nor a treasure. Claimed from the Everglades, the track at first was concerned not with dates or purse structures, but how to keep patrons and horses safe from swamp things. The track had an official snake catcher who patrolled the infield that first season and earned his salary by occasionally bagging 60 in an afternoon. Al Jolson, Joseph P. Kennedy and Will Rogers were in the crowd opening day, and not a single snake-bite complaint was lodged.

Hardly a groom or exercise rider on hand could have predicted that from such a beginning would arise a shrine meaning as much to racing as Fenway Park does to baseball.

Hialeah-style tracks aren't built by management overly concerned about profits and losses. In fact, the bottom line has to be virtually disdained, which explains why no other Hialeah-style tracks are around.

Joseph Widener, heir to a streetcar fortune, bought the track in 1930 and was ideal for the job. His passions were art and horse racing. With $1 million of his own and nearly that much from his partner, Col. E. R. Bradley, he set out to paint Hialeah as a masterpiece.

Widener and his advisers toured the world's great tracks, borrowing design ideas and sometimes improving them. The paddock walking ring came from Longchamps in Paris. The terraces are vintage Monte Carlo casino. You can supposedly see England's Epsom Downs in the tunnel through the grandstand. Other touches were gleaned from visits to Chantilly, Deauville, Ascot, Saratoga, Belmont and various French chateaus. Widener's profits were certain to be minuscule at best. But the result of his obsession was so spectacular that when Longchamps was restored in the 1960s, its representatives came to Hialeah for ideas.

It was Widener who brought in the flamingos. He imported a dozen from Cuba in 1934 but forgot to clip their wings. They immediately flew back. He went back for more, and they stuck around. The first flamingo egg laid in captivity was at Hialeah in 1936.

Grass racing made its debut in America at Hialeah in 1933, and the tote board and modern photo-finish system began there.

Before long, the best horses were also stabled there, and the Whitneys and Vanderbilts were migrating from Palm Beach to Hialeah for winters. Pink jackets and ties were "in." Al Capone fixed races. Movie stars and numerous presidents were trackside, a place to see and be seen.

Bradley eventually sold out to Kennedy, who wintered at his Palm Beach estate. When the Kennedy patriarch wasn't with wife Rose, he had Gloria Swanson or, later, Angie Dickinson on his arm.

The next caretaker, Eugene Mori, founder of New Jersey's Garden State Park, had come to Hialeah in 1921 on his honeymoon. Mori paid $7.5 million in 1954 to obtain the track from Widener's heirs, Kennedy and other investors.

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