On Saturday afternoons deep in the winters for which Buffalo, N.Y. is famous, Hialeah played a pivotal role in the direction my life would eventually take. There was just one television station there in the early 1950s and the race of the week brought black and white Hialeah Park and racing in the nation’s living rooms. Those winter afternoons cemented my future and I imagine many others’ to the racing game.
More than 20 years later, a newspaper job brought me to South Florida and a right turn off 4th Avenue, then a short, slow drive through a corridor of towering royal palms, brought me to the clubhouse entrance. There were more perks attached to newspapering in those days, one of which was free valet parking at the racetracks of South Florida.
I stood there for a while and just looked the place, savored its elegance, the sweeping staircases and lush landscaping and intricate fountains.
Though much younger, having been built originally in the ’20, then rebuilt in 1932 by Joseph E. Widener, who imported what remains the nation’s largest colony of flamingos, it was for a half-century the southern Saratoga, winter destination of the wealthy, famous and infamous, many of whom traveled by train from Palm Beach. It was also winter quarters for the most powerful Eastern racing stables.
By 1977, when John Brunetti acquired Hialeah from the group headed by John W. Galbreath, the track’s future was clouded by the changing demographic face of South Florida, home to three thoroughbred tracks as well as a harness racing facility, several greyhound tracks and jai-alai frontons. Even before the introduction of a state lottery and land-based casinos in Florida, competition for the gambling dollar was fierce.
The eventual presence of Magna Entertainment, which acquired and ultimately ruined Gulfstream Park, Churchill Downs, which purchased Calder, and deregulation of racing dates, probably the worse racing-related decision in the state’s legislative history, ultimately overwhelmed Hialeah’s tenuous position in the marketplace. Brunetti, who at times approached obsession and was not above misjudgment, kept the listing if still grand racetrack afloat through hard times and hurricanes until 2001, when on May 22, Cheeky Miss won the last race run over that hallowed ground.
The barns were razed about a year later and the building, haunted by the ghosts of the great horses and horsemen who wintered there and the collective memories of those who walked the grounds in better times, is overgrown and in disrepair. The flamingos take graceful flight amidst the decay with no one watching and Hialeah Park is listed not among the nation’s great racetracks but on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of the 11 most-endangered historic places in America. There is a plan under consideration for development of the property.
A grassroots movement -- http://www.savehialeahpark.com – opposes the plan and seeks restoration of the property for a variety of uses and, ideally, a return to racing. Interestingly, this is not a movement led by nostalgic old men, but by a group of young citizens of Hialeah led by founder Alex Fuentes who recognize the track’s place in history and its value as a public resource.
They fight the good fight against very long odds. But, not far away, South Beach is an example of the success of activists who battled to preserve the art deco buildings that developers sought to replace but ultimately restored. Everything old can indeed be new again and the concept of a longshot winning at Hialeah is not out of the question.