The Ride of His Life

A young entrepreneur buys the troubled Jockey Club and swears he's not beating a dead horse

The grand reopening night at the Jockey Club climaxed with rousing applause, balled fists circling overhead, and Bob Beamon -- the Bob Beamon -- jumping for joy, his long silhouette splayed against the ten-foot TV screen on which Evander "Underdog" Holyfield was being hugged by his wife in the boxing ring at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas. Like the New York Yankees before him, the heavyweight Holyfield had done the wonderfully improbable by coming back to reclaim a world title. Much as the Bronx Bombers' October surprise reminded fans of the glorious possibilities of the national pastime, Holyfield's eleventh-round triumph over Mike Tyson provided a much-needed boost for a moribund sport.

Just off to the side of the screen in the Grill Room, the Jockey Club's airy, oval, white-walled dining space, stood Jorge "George" Hernandez in a trim olive suit, his hands clasped comfortably behind him, a proprietary grin on his boyish face. "Everybody had been saying that boxing was dead," says the 28-year-old Hernandez. "I didn't plan on it being such a good fight, and it was a great fight. If it had been a lousy fight, everybody would be saying, 'There go those boxers again, they took our money.'"

That Holyfield vs. Tyson took place November 9, the same evening Hernandez planned to introduce the new Jockey Club, was a coincidence. But he didn't waste the opportunity. Knowing that fat cats and boxing go together like a left jab followed by a right uppercut, Hernandez billed the dual event as "The Fight the World Has Been Waiting For at the Club the World Has Been Waiting For." About 175 people turned out for the closed-circuit telecast and complimentary buffet. Though the club was open to the public for "one day only" at $75 and $100 per seat, the vast majority of the spectators were members and invited guests, some of whom had done work renovating the club. By the end of the evening, after hours of earnest, tuxedoed service from 50 staffers -- ranging from cigarette girl to chocolatier -- the thinned-out crowd of fight fans seemed roundly satisfied.

So far, so good. But Hernandez's aim -- to redeem the has-been Jockey Club -- makes Holyfield look like an odds-on favorite by comparison. For nearly two decades after its founding in 1968, the private waterfront club, ensconced within a three-tower condo compound on Biscayne Boulevard in North Miami, boasted as many as 7000 members, a good number of them rich, famous, and powerful. But since 1985 the Jockey Club has been on the ropes -- three bankruptcies and foreclosures, several management and ownership changes. Each reopening brought the same ballyhoo of false promises and a litany of blame for the failures of the past -- incompetent management, the degradation of the boulevard, oversaturation of the private club market.

And now Hernandez, who has no prior experience running a club, predicts that within three years he'll up membership tenfold from the current 500. A real estate lawyer who specializes in rehabilitating low- and moderate-income houses, he has taken on the Jockey Club as his first high-end project, having come across the deal while counseling an investor during the club's last bankruptcy proceedings. In August he bought the property from its mortgage holders. He is now the proud owner of one restaurant, four bars (two indoor, two outdoor), three swimming pools, fifteen tennis courts, one fitness center, one sixty-slip marina that can accommodate boats up to two hundred feet in length, and fourteen hotel rooms.

The purchase price was $3.8 million, in the form of a $750,000 down payment and financing from the mortgage holders for the balance. In addition, Hernandez has spent $1.5 million redoing the club and says his plan calls for another million dollars in improvements by March. "I stepped up and began my capital improvements almost immediately," he declares with brashness worthy of a prefight weigh-in. "Before they even knew my name I'd made a half-million dollars in improvements. I just went in and did it first." In addition to retooling the kitchen and redecorating ("a light Caribbean air, simple yet elegant"), Hernandez has created a cigar lounge that showcases an enclosed aviary stocked with exotic birds. He envisions a family resort and says he hopes to extend the club's traditionally Anglo and Jewish membership to include more Latins.

"I have goals that are more long-term-based than my predecessors," he asserts. "Too many of them were talking and not enough was being done. None of them had long-term commitments, and I think that's the difference between them and me."

Though his grandparents were wealthy rice and tobacco farmers in Santiago de Cuba (his aunt is married to Jorge Mas Canosa), Hernandez spent his formative years in Westchester, then moved to Kendall as a teenager and worked for his stepfather, who owned a plumbing business. He knew of the Jockey Club as a young man but never knew anyone who was a member. "I knew it was the place to be in the Seventies and Eighties, where the movers and shakers from all along the seaboard and jet setters from around the world would come down and enjoy. But I was never part of that because of my age and background," he says. "If you had told me in high school that I was going to be the owner of the Jockey Club I wouldn't have imagined it."

Hernandez graduated from Florida International University and then Nova University's law school. When he was twenty, his stepfather had had enough of the plumbing business and bought a small diner, El Coral, on NW 73rd Avenue and 35th Street. But after seven months, during which Hernandez managed the eatery, his stepfather realized that running a restaurant was no vacation from plumbing. "It was harder," concedes Hernandez, who is married and has a 22-month-old son. The diner was sold.

Despite his lack of experience, the club's recent jinx, and the considerable amount of money he's already sunk into the venture, Hernandez is undaunted. "I'm not a chef, I'm not a good cook, but I know how I would want a good steak," he says confidently. "My job is to find the right people to do it the right way. I know what I'm looking for."

And owning the Jockey Club, he believes, will have its perks. He sees the relaxed social environment of the club as an inroad to expanding his real estate business by developing contacts normally outside his realm in the Cuban community. "Networking," he imparts. "This club is like the melting pot of Miami, where the old and the young can, in a sense, put their guards down. Business is done with the people you know."

Not that he doesn't realize it's a gamble. "I'll either be called a genius or a fool," he says.

Beamon, a Miamian who long-jumped to Olympic renown in Mexico City in 1968 and now does corporate public relations work, has been a Jockey Club member since the Seventies. He says if he were a a betting man, he'd back Hernandez to reclaim the golden age of the Jockey Club.

"George is a very young, energetic man with new ideas but with an appreciation for the old ideas," he attests. "And he's strong enough to want to take a chance. That's what business is all about, anyway -- there's no guarantee.

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