Visiting Hialeah: The Grand Dame of Racing

Events / Travel

Horses racing down the Hialeah Park stretch.

Who loves a layover? No matter how tightly scheduled, the wait seems interminable. Longer gaps can make you question your sanity as the inescapable drone of CNN worms its way into your head. Who would willingly accept a seven hour intermission between flights? I did and it worked out pretty well.

My daughter and I were scheduled to return from Nevis, via St. Kitts, in the West Indies and the airline shortened our connection in Miami. I was concerned about making it through customs in time and, long story short, we ended up with the longest layover of our lives. Fortunately, “The Worldʼs Most Beautiful Race Course,” Hialeah Park, is located mere minutes from the Miami airport.

Our last night in Nevis found us dining at The Hermitage, an old plantation now converted into a hotel and guesthouses. The building itself dates back to the 1600s and it felt like a trip back in time. Horse ornaments graced the Christmas tree and the room that housed the bar was lined with photos, paintings and posters featuring the equine life. Frustratingly, Boxing Day racing had been cancelled for some reason so we had missed the opportunity to see the local track with horses running “the wrong direction” and a dramatic ocean backdrop.
 As I explored the room that housed the bar at The Hermitage, my thoughts turned to anticipation. A quartet of Derby winners gathered on one wall and Citation was among them. I had done a little research and reading about Hialeah and knew that a large statue of Citation graces the grounds in Miami. It was a welcome sign before a very long day of travel.

The weather greeting us was exactly the same as in the islands but with a less steady breeze. As we pulled up, evidence of Hialeah’s grand dame status loomed in front of us. A large, circular entry with valet parking made it easy to conjure images of fancy cars and celebrities from long ago. The sweeping staircase would continue to add mystique were it not for the tent and turnstiles blocking the way.

It was easy to imagine “The Godfather Part II” filming a scene here and I wished I had time to watch “Let It Ride” before my visit. Alas, no sign of Richard Dreyfuss, Teri Garr or a Tilly sister. 
You can learn more about the history of the track, including the signature flamingos, here.

The valet directed us inside to get questions answered. Talking loudly into the phone seemed the prime directive for the woman at the kiosk selling programs. No answers there, hardly even a break to catch her breath. So we wandered. Hunger was winning though and we decided to eat at the only place we saw. Called The Grill/La Fiesta, they had standard fare but also offered more intriguing food as well. A stand by the Citation statue offered popcorn and grilled corn (very popular) but we wanted something more substantial.

After some cajoling, my daughter agreed to join me in splitting some empanadas (one chicken, one beef) and a Cuban sandwich. I did not agree to share my Stella Artois draft. The food was tasty if not quite as hot as one might hope but at least we experienced food not seen at other racetracks. For $3 each, the empanadas were a good deal and my daughter devoured them. I managed to grab a few bites and there was no need for the back up hot dog I promised if she was unhappy with the other choices. My Cuban was massive, quite a deal for a mere $7 (we ate the rest on the plane). The cheese wasn’t melted enough to be gooey and stringy like I hope for in a Cuban but it hit the spot. The $4 Stella was perfection on a warm day and I had to resist staying for a few more.

There was no mistaking our presence in a different land. Gigi Diaz makes bilingual track announcements and Spanish is much more prevalent than English. Regardless of their language, everyone seemed to wearing their best boots and I felt out of place in loafers. I also needed a large hat and perhaps a huge belt buckle.

The paddock area is lovely, modeled after Longchamp in Paris, and there is a long stretch for the horses to parade through on the way to the track. I think it might actually be longer than many of the races themselves. Once we reached the top floor we found the Turf Club. The menu was similar, if slightly more expensive, than The Grill/La Fiesta. It was the haven we wanted when we first arrived but we were full. Another time.


Hialeah Park showed glimpses of its grandeur but overall felt like an old movie star putting on too much makeup in a vain effort to cover up the inevitable march of time. Still worth seeing but not at her best. There is an effort underway to revitalize the area with a casino, movie theater and more amenities in the hopes of making Hialeah Park a major destination again, including Thoroughbred racing.

I sincerely hope full scale racing returns. This gorgeous institution was never built for quarter horses. This was the first turf course in America. Seabiscuit raced here and I would happily schedule another long layover to see horses using all of the track.

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