Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Hialeah: Among horse racing's most hallowed of halls

In hindsight, it was fitting that I first set foot on the grounds of Hialeah Park and Race Track on a Sunday.

The trip was, after all, a pilgrimage.

I spent a sunny Saturday at nearby Gulfstream Park, modern entertainment showplace, a Caesar's Palace on the Atlantic Coast, with live racing, to boot. And that experience was fantastic. I met interesting people as I watched and wagered on excellent racing. I took photos of the facility. And I realized while leaving that the fun would stretch well into the night, long past the end of the Sunshine Millions Day race card, as horseplayers took advantage of the well-appointed simulcasting facilities, casino patrons enjoyed their games of choice, and the restaurants and bars served fine food and drink.

On a Sunday that greeted me with somber skies, I drove from my hotel in Doral, Fla., to Hialeah Park. I arrived an hour before the 1 p.m. gate-opening time, slipped my rental car in through a back driveway, and negotiated my way past a friendly employee between me and the grandstand by playing him a phone message I'd received from Hialeah's Pete Aeillo, telling me to visit his office on the second floor upon arrival and I'd get all the help and access I needed.

I parked, climbed out of the car, and there she was. Though dormant for nearly a decade, weathered and far from restored, the grandstand of Hialeah Park rose proudly toward the gray sky. I walked through the open gates and experienced the same sort of feeling I'd expect upon entering an old church that had been abandoned by its congregation in favor of a newer edifice.

Though her luster has faded and nobody had worshiped here for the past eight years, Hialeah Park is still a house of the racing gods. The feeling was so strong that once during the day I paused and gave thanks for the opportunity to see Hialeah in action, and to pray for her continued survival and success.

Meanwhile, I snapped a few photos as I wandered up to find Pete's place. I bumped into him outside the small, second-floor space occupied by the employees of Coady Photography, and Pete soon walked me to his office to obtain a pink media credential on a lanyard, receive a free Hialeah ball cap, and get the chance to meet track announcer John Lies.

Pete, though harried at times, is one of the more personable guys you'll meet, and couldn't come off as any more enthusiastic about his job at the resurrected racetrack. John seems to have a great attitude, an equally good voice, and a fine race-calling style that served Hialeah well in its opening seasons as a Quarter Horse racetrack.

In track owner John Brunetti's rebuilding process, whomever made the decision to hire those two guys made good choices.

I paused at the front of the grandstand momentarily, looking out toward Hialeah's infield lake, declared a sanctuary for the American flamingo by the Audubon Society.

Then, with press credentials around my neck, I made my way toward the back side, where makeshift barns of white canvas and modular stall systems stand in for the old Hialeah stables that were razed some time ago. Despite the makeshift resources and purses that were cut somewhat during the meet (something that's happened at a lot of tracks in this economy), sentiment on the back side was strongly positive. It seems the 2009 and 2010 Quarter Horse meets had been relatively lucrative and very competitive; trends that backsiders expected to continue.

"If you come back next (meet), better pack a lunch," said one man working in the barns. "The job won't be getting any easier."

On the front side, employees were fairly enthusiastic and universally professional and helpful. A pleasant excitement simmered among the decent-sized congregation of 3,196. Granted, that number of parishioners pales in comparison to the 27,000 who showed up for Hialeah's grand reopening in November. But considering the track was open in in direct competition on this day with glittering Gulfstream and its casino, restaurants and simulcasting, I can't fault Hialeah for the size of the crowd.

Remember, this comeback meet featured Quarter Horses, which Floridians haven't seen race in their state since 1991 at Pompano Park, a harness track. And Hialeah operated without the ability to offer simulcast wagering, which even by the end of the 2010 winter meet, not all patrons had quite figured out.

"I punch 'Other Tracks' and still all it gives me is Hialeah Park," said one man to a friend as both stood at an auto-teller to place their bets.

Before too long, Hialeah will be hosting a poker room, adding some revenues to fuel further renovations. Simulcasting rights are scheduled to return, which will help attract bettors like the aforementioned patron, who don't just want to wager on Hialeah during a day at the races, but also on other tracks around the country. And a shrewd move by Brunetti fulfilled a legal requirement for two consecutive calendar years of race-meets by staging a "2009 fall meeting" and a "2010 winter meet" in immediate succession, from late-November through early February, letting Hialeah qualify to host slots and full casino gambling in 2011.

So Hialeah Park's comeback is well under way.

I pondered all this as I walked down an empty trackside apron, distancing myself from the crowd in the one-third of the grandstand that is open, while approaching the starting gates to photograph the horses breaking in The Sunshine Stakes.

As my feet shuffled, I kicked something and heard it scuffle along the concrete apron ahead of me. It was nothing important, I was certain, and I continued to walk.

Then, in a moment of sentimental clarity, I turned to look back at what my toe had booted. It was a chunk of concrete and aggregate, slivers of black and pink stone. An egg-sized hunk of Hialeah Park, I presume, probably fallen from the shuttered grandstand a few yards away.

That lump -- I consider it an artifact of racing history -- now sits on my mantel in North Carolina, next to a 60-year-old Life Magazine page featuring Citation's breaking of the all-time earnings record for a thoroughbred racehorse. The same Citation whose life-size statue stands watch over the patio and paddock area at Hialeah Park.

If you've ever clutched a wager ticket and prayed to the racing gods for divine intervention as the field turns for home, then whether you've ever set foot there, to you Hialeah Park should be sacred soil.

And if politicians, the racing industry's powers that be, horsemen, horseplayers and John Brunetti can continue to cooperate on the undeniably good work of restoring Hialeah Park, we will be able to watch and wager for generations to come as horses -- hopefully thoroughbreds, too -- rumble toward the finish line at these hallowed grounds.


  1. Glen, you told a heartfelt story of this historic track. I made my first trip to Hialeah during its closing weekend this February. We flew down there just to see this spectacular track. Things did not go my way (my friend did get to stay and experience closing day) as both visits ended up in some sort of disaster. The Saturday of the quarter horse feature, was interrupted by an unscheduled photo shoot at Gulfstream, second, we thought there was racing on Friday and NOT, third, our venture on Sunday ended up with the cancellation of racing due to a monsoon. Luckily, we also had credentials waiting, but it didn't seem to matter one way or another since racing was cancelled for the day.We still took in the sights. Our first stop was the gift shop to collect any memorabilia we could muster. After that expensive visit, who knew they didn't take credit cards, our cameras clicked away at the magnificant building and all of its grandeur. Pictures of racing greats, silks in a row above the original betting windows (how cool are they?) along with copper plates of historic racing families and their horse's achievements. The marble staircases, pillars, vines with the famous flower, which I can not remember the name of, marble floors, old lawnchairs and umbrella tables, the Citation statue surrounded by a built in pond, spacious grounds that once held a building for an aviary, and of course the pink flamingos in their glory at their usual post. One could even hear the old past of thundering hooves and screaming fans while looking over the track from the grandstand. The only thing missing,was the famous flight of the flamingos, after the 4th race.
    The whole facility is truly something to behold. There is not a track around which can compare. Even with a truck like toteboard, you could still invision the massive one that once stood there. Termites tried in vain to ruin this track but thanks to John Brunetti, there has been a halt of their distruction. The facility is just plain classic. Even the old tree that looks prehistoric in the middle island of the valet parking lot, with an old ribbed folding chair underneath its massive limbs, displays a wonderment of stories it could tell.
    Older horsemen from Gulfstream, had many stories to tell of Hialeah. One told how the track played fair and the turf course was like sponge. When was the last time you heard that?
    I turly hope this track can be saved and thoroughbreds returned. Florida could have a Breeders Cup. What a fabulous facility to entertain a Breeders Cup on the East Coast.
    Sorry to ramble, but I for one would truly hate to see this track torn down, as the case for so many other tracks that once graced our country, the next one being Hollywood.
    Thank you for sharing your vision.

  2. I'm glad that you responded, and at length. You added so much to the words I offered, describing the many features that caught your eye (and mine) but didn't make it into my written recollections.

    And you're right, that tree in the valet parking lot island is a whopper. I stood for a minute and just stared that that tree before leaving on a rainy Monday when the race card was canceled.

    I hope to return -- annually would be ideal -- and to see thoroughbreds on both main track and turf course. Maybe someday, dare we dream, in a graded Flamingo Stakes.

  3. I used to visit Hialeah every Saturday during the racing season from 1983 until it closed in 2001. In my opinion, Hialeah is the Most Beautiful Horsetrack in the whole world. Plus it is the best real dirt track as well. No Poly Junk...Florida needs to keep this Historic Jewel and Preserve it. And Yes, I Miss The Flamingo Stakes! Thanks, Glen for the story. Keep the Faith, Miracles still happen.

  4. Thanks for the writing about the majestic & wonderful Hialeah race track. Every track in America (even Saratoga & Keeneland) pales in comparison; even when Hialeah isn't at its best.

    I agree with Pattie, Hialeah is the most beautiful track in the world - at least the ones I've seen. I hope Brunetti is able to get the legislative help he needs to make it work long-term. Hialeah seemed doomed, and still might be, but the track is a national asset and should be preserved for future generations. It would be a crime if this masterpiece, the legacy of Joseph Widener, is allowed to close once more. Fingers are crossed.

  5. Enjoyed your Hialeah report, Glenn. But a question:

    Between one of the later races, did the track play the famous "The Flight of the Flamingos" song, provoking the flamingos to rise from the infield and fly around to the music?"

  6. Jon,

    I'm gonna say "yes."

    I don't recall hearing the song, although it might well have been played. But they DID go out, a couple of track workers, and just walk toward the end of the lake where the flamingos were flocked, prompting them to fly several laps around the infield and land at the other end of the lake.

    I have a couple of poor photos of the flight. Maybe I'll try and add one here.

  7. Hi Glenn,
    Yes, I can be long winded when it comes to passion. Thank you for your response. Years ago, Mr, Brunetti's parents stayed at a motel my parent's were managing near Saratoga. My mom made them breakfast, since it was not a hotel... They were kind to her and won the Whitney stakes that year with Staunchness (sp). I never met their son.
    I heard they do play the music for the flamingos and they do a special one when they close. A friend was just there and it seems to me she said she got teary eyed when they played the song, which could be for the last time...let's hope not! Keep dreaming... let's hope we can all meet there some time soon.

  8. I am a horseman from CA, and I have to visit FL every January for business. I always make it a point to go to a FL track, usually Tampa Bay Downs or Gulfstream. This year, for the first year, I was able to go to the fabled Hialeah. I had heard stories over the years of its decay, and the horrible neighborhood, so I was expecting sadness and delapidation. I was so thrilled to see gleaming polished floors, inlaid and stamped concrete, lovely landscaping, friendly employees, and FLAMINGOES! The drive there through town was nowhere near scary. Everything was delightful except the obvious lack of horse quality and the extremely weak handle that changed the odds if I bet $25. I walked the entire facility and imagined my racing heroes walking in the parade ring as I had seen them do on television so many times. I was only sad when I went upstairs and saw rows and rows of empty private boxes that used to be filled with racing's nobility. I am so grateful to Mr. Brunetti to have given me the chance to see this track in person. We've just suffered the loss of Bay Meadows in Northern California, and years later, it is distressingly still a huge hill of broken concrete and asphalt, a scar upon the land, mocking the city of San Mateo for its short-sightedness as developers evaporated. The people of FL and the East Coast circuit should do everything in their power to keep this historical estate open as a Thoroughbred venue. They will be so sad if it is torn down, and we will all have lost something precious forever.

  9. You know, I never did respond to this comment, Sandra, from way back in February. But I should.

    You're absolutely right about the neighborhoods surrounding Hialeah Park. The community beyond the track's walls is far from upper-crust, but I was by no means intimidated to drive there, nor to get out and patronize a convenience store and a McDonald's.

    To me, it just seemed like a working-class neighborhood, with a bit of a Latin accent.


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