The name Hialeah in a headline or across the top of a racing chart has come to mean more to the American racegoer than the mere fact that horses are running in an atmosphere of palms and ponds and many bright-colored birds (see cover). Within recent years it has become the summit for all winter racing in the East and, aside from prodding the appetite of some 25 million frost-bound devotees for the spring and summer racing menu, it actually establishes the tenor for the long new racing year about to unfold itself.
Compared to tracks like Belmont Park or Pimlico or Saratoga, Hialeah is totally lacking in venerability. After all, the meeting currently in progress is only its 32nd, and this makes it one of our younger major race tracks. But anyone who takes the long, casual drive up the avenue of royal palms that leads to the entrance will have forgotten all about venerability long before the daily-double windows close. And, once inside, when he has sighted the silks of the famous stables like Calumet, Brookmeade, Greentree, Glen Riddle or George D. Widener, he should have a pretty good idea that he's not at the roller derby.
In just 40 days of racing Hialeah gives away over $2 million in purses and draws close to (and in good years over) 800,000 people. This year more people than ever before will be talking about Hialeah, thanks to the seven successive Saturday afternoon telecasts, which started with last week's Hibiscus and continue with this week's Royal Palm Handicap ( NBC-TV, 4:30-5 p.m. EST).
The most famous of all Hialeah's races is, of course, the $100,000 Flamingo Stakes for 3-year-olds. Not only is the Flamingo the first major race for eastern Kentucky Derby candidates, but it is also one of the most peculiar pauses on the whole racing calendar. On Flamingo Day (Feb. 28), programs, racing forms, tablecloths—everything save mink—turns pink. An hour before the race a group of Seminole Indians, rented for the occasion at $2 a head, start herding more than 300 Bacardi-colored birds through the infield. Indians shriek, flamingos squawk and even the most taciturn horseplayer takes whimsical delight in the phantom chase between overdressed red-men and undressed poultry.
But this delight is brief. The rich and lasting one comes with the Flamingo itself. The last four runnings have been won by horses belonging to racing's glamour roster—Tim Tam, Bold Ruler, Needles and Nashua. Six of our last 10 Kentucky Derby winners have in fact been Hialeah-developed racers, and 21 of the past 30 horses to finish in the money in Triple Crown events have received their early 3-year-old training or racing at this race track.
This year, however, looks a little bit different from recent ones. Most of the owners and trainers currently at Hialeah feel that they already know the name of the Flamingo winner and the name of the Kentucky Derby winner as well. In Christopher T. Chenery's First Landing they feel that the 3-year-old division has a superstar and that there is nothing that is going to come on late in the season to challenge his supremacy. His record of 10 wins in 11 starts last year showed them that he could take all the fury of mud and distance and still beat the best of his contemporaries, and that he would ripen over the winter.
As First Landing's trainer, Casey Hayes, said the other morning, "This colt has really filled out [see picture]; he has picked up about 75 pounds, and off his early workouts here I'd say he was in real fine shape. He's a good-natured horse and the type that will go along with a trainer's plans. Right now we plan to give him an overnight race, then the Everglades February 18 and then the Flamingo. After that, we'll see. He'll probably get a prep for the Florida Derby and then run in that. But right now it doesn't look like he'll get more than four or five races in Florida before he moves on to the Kentucky Derby. I'm trying out a little theory of my own with him. We've built him a special paddock where he can stand by himself, get the sunshine and nibble on the grass. I think that it gets boring for a horse to stand in his stall all afternoon long. By being out in the air he should keep himself alert and soak in the sun."
There are, however, some historically proved points about good 2-year-olds that should be assayed when they turn 3. For one thing, only three of the past 22 "best" 2-year-olds ever went on to win Kentucky Derbies and these three (Count Fleet, Citation and Needles) managed to win eight Triple Crown races between them. And, for another, Garden State winners, of which First Landing became one last October, usually run a precarious course. Of five past winners only one was ever sound enough to start in a Kentucky Derby. But First Landing seems perhaps better than the others.
The other important 2-year-olds of last year, Tomy Lee and Intentionally, are not at Hialeah. Intentionally is still in Maryland and Tomy Lee will probably get a couple of prep races at Santa Anita before it is decided whether to try him in the Flamingo and the Florida Derby. Although Tudor Melody, the leader of the Free Handicap (the British equivalent of our Experimental), is at Hialeah and working about as well as might be expected, the chances of his getting up to the Flamingo are quite bleak. His trainer, Johnny Nerud, is not the type of trainer to damage a horse for an expedient purse. "This colt will be out later." Nerud says. "He'll let me know when he's ready."
At the start of any new 3-year-old season it has become quite natural to be suspicious of what may be lurking up the devil's-red-and-blue sleeves of Calumet Farm. Their remarkable Derby record over the last 11 years—nine starters, five winners and two seconds—makes everyone wary of them. While this might not look like the brightest year for Calumet, this superb racing establishment always seems to be at its best when the outlook is worst. Trainer Jimmy Jones explained his position the other day in the same fashion that he usually does this early in the season. "We have two colts that we're concentrating on, Numo and On-and-On. About the only thing that I can say about Numo right now is that he is big and good-lookin' and he comes from Calumet Farm. On-and-On [by Nasrullah out of Two Lea] hurt his left hind ankle last year and has been slow in coming around. He's doing pretty good right now, and even though I haven't nominated him to the Flamingo he might come along in time for the Derby. All you can do is throw them into a race and see which one gets back first."