Everything appeared to be perfectly normal at Hialeah racetrack in Greater Miami last Saturday afternoon. The fronds of the royal palms waved gently in the balmy breezes, the bougainvillea was in bloom, and the grass was an emerald green. Hialeah, the dowager queen of Florida racing, looked splendid, a Mediterranean confection, all pink and white, and stylish as ever.
An hour before the start of the 59th running of the Flamingo Stakes, the pinnacle of the Hialeah season, the 600 flamingos that nest in the infield took flight, as they always do this day, gliding and wheeling above the racetrack to the strains of Flamingo played over the loudspeakers to a festive crowd of 17,617. At 5:14 p.m. a field of 14 3-year-old colts broke from the gate; when Cherokee Colony won by a length, going the mile and an eighth in an ordinary 1:49[4/5], a red carpet was rolled across the racetrack and a sheaf of pink carnations was handed to winning jockey Jorge Velasquez. The horse's owner, Thomas Evans, declared it "extremely thrilling to win the first 3-year-old race of the year."
But something was definitely amiss. What, for instance, was so undistinguished a field doing in the prestigious Flamingo? ("These are third-rate horses," said trainer Woody Stephens, whose colt Cefis finished third.) Why was Forty Niner, the early favorite for the Kentucky Derby who is stabled at Hialeah, resting in his barn rather than running in the race? Why had the purse for the Flamingo dropped from $450,000 in 1987 to $250,000 this year? And why was the race, traditionally a major prep for the Triple Crown, being run on Jan. 2, only a day after the entrants turned three and much too early to suit the training programs of most top horses?
Like a wellborn woman who has fallen on hard times, Hialeah continues to keep up appearances, even as a close look reveals the mend in the stocking and the fraying hem. To understand how the disrepair came about, one need only look back to Jan. 15, 1987, when the five-man Florida Pari-Mutuel Commission met to determine the racing dates for 1987-88. The South Florida season is allocated in three blocks of dates: November to January, January to March and March to May. The middle dates are the most coveted because they come at the height of the Florida tourist season; the late dates are the second-most desirable. Throughout its 62-year history, Hialeah has always been awarded either the middle dates or the end dates.
Now, for the first time, the commission handed Hialeah the early dates (Nov. 11 to Jan. 7). Gulfstream Park, just 12 miles to the north of Hialeah and its longtime adversary, got the prime dates, while upstart Calder Race Course, which is even closer to Hialeah than Gulfstream is, for the first time was granted the end dates.
When the commission's decision was announced, many in the racing business declared it a deathblow for Hialeah. "Those dates are a disaster, no question," trainer Angel Penna Jr. told the Miami Herald. "I just don't believe Hialeah can survive with them."
Maybe not. Then again, maybe it can. The potentially ruinous tug-of-war between Hialeah and Gulfstream over the precious middle dates has been going on for years—and Hialeah's death has been augured before. Now that Calder has made it a three-way battle, the situation is further complicated.
Hialeah president John Brunetti stubbornly claims, as he has since he bought the track in 1977, that Hialeah cannot survive economically without the most lucrative dates. His track's situation, he says, is different from that of the other two. Brunetti is a real estate mogul, and his ultimate threat is that he may be forced to develop Hialeah's 219-acre site for other purposes. "A corporate park would be ideal," he says.
Sixty-three years ago, James Bright, who owned some swampland a few miles northwest of downtown Miami, and Joseph Smoot, an investor and promoter, put up a rickety clubhouse, a grandstand and a few barns on a section of the swampland occupied by a dog track. On Jan. 15, 1925, some 7,000 people showed up for the inaugural meeting of the track that was to become Hialeah. The track struggled along until 1931, when Philadelphia horseman Joseph E. Widener bought it and began to turn it into a showplace. He spent $2 million to build the clubhouse, landscape the grounds and import the flamingos. Widener's first flock didn't stay long. Thirty birds were flown in from Cuba and that evening were parading around the infield. The next morning the birds were gone. Someone had forgotten to clip their wings. Widener immediately wired for more birds, and, wings clipped, they remained to found the present flock (which doesn't have to have its wings clipped, because the track infield is its nesting ground).
In the 1930s and '40s, Widener made Hialeah the center of winter racing in the U.S. Among the great horses who have raced over the track are Citation, Nashua, War Admiral, Bull Lea, Needles, Armed, Tim Tarn, Graustark, Kelso, Bold Ruler, Northern Dancer, Buckpasser, Seattle Slew, Spectacular Bid and Alydar. In bygone days the big-name horses were matched by the celebrities and society swells who flocked to see them. Vanderbilts and Whitneys would board elegant railroad cars in Palm Beach and sip champagne until the cars arrived at the Hialeah clubhouse. "It was an occasion," says Joe Tanenbaum, a former newspaperman and now head of p.r. for Gulfstream. "It was like going to the Kentucky Derby, only it was every day." Among the luminaries who graced the clubhouse was Winston Churchill, who, upon seeing the track, declared, "Extraordinary!"