Hialeah Park: The Glory Days Print E-mail

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January 14, 2013     

He was the founding father of Florida horse racing. James Harrison Bright bred the first Florida thoroughbred at his farm in Davie, and later teamed up with a friend in starting a thoroughbred farm  near Ocala. Today, the region is one of the nation’s top breeding centers.Hialeah 7
 
A native of St. Louis, Bright arrived in Florida in 1907. Five-feet, seven inches and 130 pounds, “Uncle Jimmy” as he was known, was typically seen in a dapper blue suit with a little collar and a bow tie.   Bright was operating a cattle ranch on 3,000 acres to the west of Miami by 1920 where he rode his pony all over the property. Familiar with quantities of black marl, Bright reckoned the soil could provide good footing for a racetrack. When his friends heard his theory, old Jimmy was thought to have truly lost his mind.

Bright and partner Glenn Curtiss gave the land-- 160 acres carved out of swamplands-- to the Miami Jockey Club for a nominal $10, provided that it was earmarked as a racetrack. Their daring gamble succeeded.

The Miami Jockey Club began racing at the Hialeah Racetrack on January, 25, 1925. A crowd of 17,000 showed up at a clubhouse and grandstand built to accommodate 5,000. Among the celebrities were dancer Gilda Gray, creator of the shimmy, and Gene Tunney who one year later outslugged Jack Dempsey to capture the world heavyweight crown.

Hialeah 2The original facility, a few miles west of downtown Miami, comprised a one-mile dirt track, 21 stables, a clubhouse, and an administration building. Nearby, a greyhound track and fronton for the Spanish sport of jai-alai was constructed, the first in the U. S. Down the road was also an amusement park with a roller coaster and dancing hall that competed with tents offering alligator wrestling.

Then the Great Hurricane of September 1926 dealt the City of Hialeah a staggering blow. In 1930 the property was sold to Joseph E. Widener who corralled renowned Kentucky horseman Col. Edward R. Bradley as an investor. Heir to a streetcar fortune, Widener’s family had been involved in racing since 1890. He took his architect Lester W. Geisler on a grand tour of Europe from the classic turf courses to the casinos of the French. They also visited Belmont and Saratoga to cull ideas on how to redesign Hialeah. Those ideas can still be seen today.

Geisler’s master plan included the elegance and spaciousness of English racecourse-inspired saddling stalls. The open walking ring was similar to that of Longchamp Race Course outside Paris. The tunnel leading onto the track was reminiscent of Epsom Downs. The boxy clubhouse was transformed into a sweeping replica of a French chateau with wide verandas and balustrade terraces resembling those of a casino visited in Monte Carlo. Marble staircases were fashioned after Ascot and Deauville.

A row of Australian pines lined the perimeter road. There was a subtropical Saratoga-like atmosphere with hundreds of towering royal palms and banyan trees swaying in the balmy breezes and brilliant bougainvillea blooming in the lavish gardens with an aviary and aquarium.

The new Hialeah opened January, 14 1932 and set its tone for years to come. An opulent showplace, it became the darling of Palm Beach winter society who rode private railcars south and debarked at a station specially built by the Seaboard Airline Railway.

The greatest personalities and countless beautiful people came to Hialeah to watch the greatest horses and horsemen.  Truman, Churchill, Kennedy and Nixon wheeled through the turnstiles. Joining them were Sinatra, Crosby, Jolson, Durante, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Amelia Earhart, Will Rogers and Joe DiMaggio.Hialeah 3

Widener introduced turf racing from Europe and the Totalizer from Australia, a mechanical system of calculating odds and payoffs which increased public confidence in the track's handling of bets. He also imported peacocks from India, parrots and toucans from Mexico and a colony of 20 pink flamingos from Cuba that nested in the infield lagoon. When they took to the sky they glided majestically above the lush wildlife sanctuary that was designated a National Audubon sanctuary.

The famous flamingos shared occupancy with the cream of American thoroughbreds. The silks of C. V. Whitney, Greentree Stable, George Widener (Joseph’s nephew) and other patricians’ top-flight horses were paraded in the paddock here every winter. The 220-acre paradise was saluted as the greatest racetrack on earth.

Trainers Ben and Jimmy Jones began their careers as champions at Hialeah. Trainer Woody Stephens was a fixture at ‘Barn M’ each winter for 50 years. Televised racing in the 1950s increased Hialeah's exposure and popularity. It regularly attracted crowds of 30,000.

Each winter, the most promising three-year old horses raced their way into shape fueling their owners’ Derby dreams here. It was the site of the Flamingo Stakes, a stepping-stone for such Kentucky Derby winners as Citation, Northern Dancer and Foolish Pleasure, Seattle Slew, and Spectacular Bid.

Hialeah 8In the lead-up to the $149,000 Flamingo Stakes in 1979 the irascible trainer Bud Delp passed out buttons that read: “Flip Your Lid For Spectacular Bid.”

The Flamingo turned out to be little more than a public workout witnessed by 23,157 rabid race fans. Rolling to his ninth consecutive stakes victory, Spectacular Bid scorched the field by a dozen lengths, paying a skimpy $2.10. No horse had ever dominated the Flamingo by such a wide margin.

With 19-year-old Ronny Franklin in the irons, Bid accelerated away from seven rivals with one powerful move down the backstretch. Spectacular Bid went on to win the Derby and Preakness in 1979 and compiled one of racing's best records winning 26 of 30 starts, and capturing the heart of racing fans everywhere.

Epilogue

By the late 1980s racing’s royal palace was smack in the middle of the rough-and-tumble Florida politics over gambling legislation. Florida’s three tracks always squabbled about dates to the point where in 1989 the state of Florida deregulated horse racing and left the tracks to fight among themselves. Eventually Gulfstream Park and Calder Race Course squeezed Hialeah out of the racing calendar. The South Florida landmark ran its last thoroughbred race on May 22, 2001.

After more than eight years of hibernation and decay, track owner John Brunetti spent $8 million refurbishing the facilities to reopen on November 28, 2009 for Quarter Horse racing. Under a Quarter Horse license, Hialeah can hold mixed meets with thoroughbred races comprising up to half its schedule. In early January 2013 Brunetti said the track might hold some thoroughbred races beginning July 1, but reiterated he will not run head-to-head with Gulfstream and Calder.Hialeah 6

Hialeah’s current race meet ends on February 17. Construction of a casino on the north side of its grandstand continues. The casino is slated to open in early July.

Some dreams die harder than others.  Stay tuned.

 

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