The Jockey Club's Wild Ride

For two decades it was a chic hangout for South Florida's most well-to-do. Now it's a money pit with a sordid story to tell.

Every entrant to the Jockey Club's restaurant, from A-lister to wannabe, had to pass through the same gatekeeper: maitre d' Tino Pareto, a short, trim, energetic emigre from Genoa, Italy. Pareto, who currently runs Tino's Place, an Italian-Peruvian restaurant in Coral Gables, remembers fondly his years at the Jockey Club. "On a weekend night, it was wall-to-wall people," he reminisces in a gentle Italian accent. "We used to do an average of about five, six, seven hundred dinners. Everything was French service. They were coming down from New York, from San Francisco, from New Orleans. Everybody met at the Jockey Club for the weekend. They used to call me from London, from Paris, from Hong Kong and say, 'Such-and-such a day I'll be there, make me a party for 50 people.' It was a different time, a good time, good prestige."

Pareto remembers seeing the departure of Walter Troutman and the other original investors from the operations of the club as a harbinger of bad times; he left in 1982.

His instincts proved keen. The Eighties were indeed a grim decade for the Jockey Club -- for both members and residents. The social club property was sold three times between 1985 and 1989, and a 1989 savings and loan debacle involving some $15 million in bad loans left the operation in the hands of the FDIC. After the Herman family, whose patriarch Jack was among the original owners, bought it from the federal government that year, the old magic didn't return. Even renowned New York City chef Larry Forgione couldn't spark a revival: His fine-dining and open-to-the-public restaurant, called An American Place Waterside at the Jockey Club, lasted only a few months in 1994.

Hoping for a turnaround, the Herman group, headed by Jack's son-in-law Sam Sardinia, sold the club in 1995 to Boca Raton-based Sky Scientific, a mining and development company, but the new owner failed to make its mortgage payments shortly thereafter.

The tribulations of the club itself were intertwined with those of the residential units. Jockey III, the final tower, was completed in 1982, bringing the total number of units to 411. The decline of property values in the area, exacerbated by the financial and operational nightmares plaguing the club, dragged down the value of the condo units and engendered increasing ill will from the residents toward the Hermans. The culmination was a 1996 lawsuit by the three condominium associations against the Hermans' company, Jockey Holdings, Inc., that is still pending -- as is a counterclaim by Jockey Holdings against the condo associations.

Though one of the issues disputed in these suits is that of payment for the upkeep of the club's common areas (i.e., what proportion should be paid by the residents and what proportion by the owners of the restaurant/recreation properties), the residents have other concerns about the consistent failures of the "club" part of the Jockey Club. "It's definitely had a negative impact on the condominium owners," Waxenberg says of the disastrous past two decades. "The apartments are worth 40 to 50 percent of what they were at their peak."

Miami-Dade County property records bear out Waxenberg's bleak assessment. Sixteen owners in the three towers sold their condos in the county's fiscal year 1996-97; all but four got much less for their property than they had paid, and none made a profit. Units that had sold for $250,000 in the Eighties sold for $129,000, $115,000 -- even as low as $61,000.

Considering these dismal trends, the Hermans were eager to unload the property. Membership in the private club had dwindled from some 7000 in the Seventies to a meager 500 last year. The condo associations were cursing and suing. As the club, its owners, and the condo dwellers have aged and memories of swankiness have faded, a procession of white knights has ridden through the automatic gates to rescue a property clearly in need of rescuing. Yet all these chevaliers have had chinks in their armor -- and, in some cases, a good bit of tarnish as well.

Eduardo Jesus Anton is burdened by a world of problems that have nothing to do with the time he spent at the Jockey Club, but as he paces the stark visiting room in downtown Miami's Federal Detention Center, tall and grim-faced in his forest-green jumpsuit, his role in the attempted revival of the club still weighs heavily on him.

"The person who basically did all the reconstruction of the Jockey Club, who had the vision for the Jockey Club, who sold, really, the Jockey Club project to George Hernandez, was me," Anton growls, his deep baritone serrated by Marlboros. "That I will always take full credit for. Not blame, credit. I took a bankrupt property, a deal that nobody wanted to touch, and I saw an opportunity to make this the deal that got me back from the wilderness I was in. In return, I had to sell my soul to George Hernandez."

Being behind bars is nothing new to Eddie Anton. A former real estate salesman and ex-Marine (drummed out for going AWOL and writing bad checks), he served three years in federal prison for a kickback scheme in 1986 involving Housing and Urban Development money, according to court records. Anton, who moved to Miami from Spain with his family in 1973, says he needed the money (he claims to have netted $17,000 in the scam) to help his then-girlfriend, who was pregnant with his child, get herself and her son away from the boy's father.

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