Hialeah Park images courtesy of Horsephotos.com
by Terry Conway
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.
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, by 1920, was operating a cattle ranch on 3,000 acres to the west of Miami, 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 Jan. 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 boxer Gene Tunney, who one year later outslugged Jack Dempsey to capture the world heavyweight crown.
The 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 an amusement park with a roller coaster and dancing hall that competed with tents offering alligator wrestling.
Then “The Great Miami 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 Racecourse outside of Paris, France. 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.
The new Hialeah opened Jan. 14, 1932 and set its tone for years to come. A tropical, opulent showplace, complete with aviary and aquarium, it became the darling of Palm Beach winter society. They 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. Harry Truman, Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon wheeled through the turnstiles. Joining them were Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Al Jolson, Jimmy Durante, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Amelia Earhart, Will Rogers and Joe DiMaggio.
Widener introduced turf racing from Europe and the Totalizer from Australia, a mechanical system of calculating odds and payoffs that 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 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 at Hialeah 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 3-year-old horses raced their way into shape, fueling their owners’ Kentucky Derby dreams here. It was the site of the Flamingo Stakes, a steppingstone for such Derby winners as Citation, Northern Dancer and Foolish Pleasure, Seattle Slew, and Spectacular Bid.
In 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 Ronnie 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 Stakes (G1) in 1979 and compiled one of racing's best records winning 26 of 30 starts, and capturing the heart of racing fans everywhere.
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 that in 1989 the state of Florida deregulated horse racing and left the tracks to fight amongst 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 decay, track owner John Brunetti spent $8 million refurbishing the facilities to reopen on Nov. 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's current race meet ends on Feb. 17. Construction of a casino on the north side of the track's grandstand continues. The casino is slated to open in early July.
Some dreams die harder than others. Stay tuned.