Historic Hialeah Park Backing Into the Future

by Greg Melikov

posted on November 17, 2009 in General Discussion | No Comments >>

Hialeah Park, 84 years after its debut in the Roaring ’20s, is back from the dead and on track to hold the first of two meetings 48 hours after Thanksgiving.

It has been eight years since the last thoroughbred race was staged at the historic South Florida landmark. At one time Hialeah was known as “the most beautiful racetrack in the world” because of its grand architecture, fountains and statues besides exotic scenery and a magnificent turf course.

While the facility is a shell of itself today, scores of construction workers are laboring feverishly in double shifts repairing, landscaping and painting so the grand reopening can take place on Nov. 28.

All three floors of the clubhouse, including several restaurants, will be open to fans, but other parts of the facility will be closed as renovations continue.

Horses began arriving Nov. 12 and will be stabled in nearly 1,000 temporary stalls. This time, however, the stars are quarter horses – the first time such races are being staged in Florida since 1991 when Pompano Park harness track hosted such a meeting.

In March, the state issued a quarter-horse permit to Hialeah. In September, an application for racing dates was filed and recently approved.

Looking to the future with visions of thoroughbreds, a casino and poker rooms dancing in their heads, track officials requested a pair of 20-day meetings – November to December and January to February.

A very smart move since state legislators decided Hialeah could install slots after holding races during two calendar years. But that depends on Florida’s pending agreement with the Seminoles that would allow the tribe to continue offering blackjack and other card games in exchange for annual payments to the state.

John J. Brunetti, who has owned Hialeah since ’77, is confident the Legislature will find a way to let the track obtain slots even without a deal with the Seminoles.

Brunetti is hoping for an opening-day crowd of 7,500 to 10,000, but expects attendance to drop off considerably to 3,000 or less daily. Racing will run from Saturday through Tuesday.

I’m a bit worried about whether this gamble will pay off. First, Hialeah once again goes head-to-head with Calder Race Course the remainder of ’09 before taking on Gulfstream Park in ’10.

I recall that when it tried running head-to-head against Calder in the late fall of ’89, it was forced to throw in the towel not long afterward.

Secondly, quarter-horse racing is not exactly well known in South Florida – thoroughbred country. Will enough people show up for the track to break even?

In the summer of ’01, after Hialeah ended its last thoroughbred meeting in the spring, Florida racing was deregulated. Gulfstream responded by extending its ’02 meeting that opened in January while Calder started several weeks earlier than the usual late April start.

Unfortunately, Hialeah was left with a single uncontested racing day. It never reopened.

The track has been shuttered since May 22, 2001, when 3,280 fans atteneded the wake, including myself. I’ll never the winner of the 10th and final race was Cheeky Miss.

Hialeah for many years survived despite losing the lucrative middle racing dates and declining attendance, mainly because of simulcasting, which could resume in the future.

Quite a few suggestions were made to save the track that opened Jan. 25, 1925. Since Hialeah was always noted for its turf course, the first in the country built in ’33, one idea was to hold a Saratoga-type meeting, 30 days or so, featuring a turf festival. The powers that be didn’t go for it.

What I miss most is the ritual after the seventh race — the flight of the flamingos.

After buying the track in ’30 and transforming it into the most visited South Florida tourist attraction, Joseph E. Widener imported a flock of Cuban flamingos to inhabit the infield and gardens. Some have been relocated, but many still reside in their sanctuary on the infield.

So at least for now Hialeah, with those magnificent birds, will have an audience. How long it lasts is the $64 million question.

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