The Last Pony Show

Owner John Brunetti is determined to save Hialeah Park, but market pressures may spell doom after 76 years of racing

The result was a setting for horseracing that was like no other in the world: a palm-lined entrance road leading to a sweeping, ivy-covered clubhouse in the style of a French chateau. And what other racing oval surrounds a manmade lake stocked with exotic birds, including pink flamingos captured in Cuba and successfully bred in captivity?

Almost instantly the park, for the wealthiest winter residents of Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties, became the place to see and be seen. Many made the trip in private train cars, stopping just south of the main gate. Photographs of Joseph Kennedy accompanying his daughter-in-law Jackie to the races, and of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill strolling the grounds, still adorn the clubhouse walls.

More than simply a meeting place for the rich and famous, though, Hialeah Park over the years became the national capital of winter racing. In 1948 Hialeah's season produced Citation, the horse that went on to win the sport's three biggest races that year: the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes.

Hialeah's storied history is one for the books
Photo courtesy of Hialeah Race track
Hialeah's storied history is one for the books
Hialeah's storied history is one for the books
Photo courtesy of Hialeah Race track
Hialeah's storied history is one for the books

Still one of only eleven horses ever to win the so-called Triple Crown, Citation also became the first horse to win a million dollars in prize money, though the accomplishment came at a price. Following his Triple Crown triumph, the champion thoroughbred suffered an ankle injury and spent the 1949 season in the barn. Instead of retiring the horse, however, his owners insisted on racing him the following year. Running on stubborn animal pride, losing as often as he won, Citation finally managed to reach the million-dollar mark in career winnings in 1951. A bronze life-size statue of the horse, set atop a marble pedestal, today stands in a pond of water lilies, watching over the western entrance to the Hialeah clubhouse.

The Fifties and Sixties probably were the park's -- and the sport's -- golden era, with an average daily attendance of 15,000 to 20,000 spectators paying to watch horses like Nashua (winner of the Preakness and the Belmont in 1955), Needles (winner of the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont in 1956), and Northern Dancer (winner of the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness in 1964).

In the Seventies Hialeah confronted the same hard reality as other tracks. The sport's long-time fans were dying off, and potential new fans were being lost to other forms of entertainment. Horseracing, which had enjoyed a long run as one of the nation's most consistently popular spectator sports, had failed to develop any kind of aggressive marketing strategy, an oversight that eventually began to take its toll.

Hialeah Park, though, had an additional obstacle to overcome: the popular perception of the surrounding city as a depressing, even unsafe urban landscape of strip malls and factories. "People were like, Get away from that Cuban city; it's dangerous,'" remembers Raul Martinez.

Then there were the jokes, even among Cubans themselves, that characterized the city as a kind of exile purgatory. One of these went, roughly, like this: A Cuban-American father, having just purchased a lottery ticket, tells his young son that if his ship should come in, it'll be a life of nothing but beautiful women, champagne, and Paris from then on. "But Daddy, what if you don't win?" asks the pessimistic child. "Well," his father answers, "then I'll just have to settle for your mother, Budweiser, and Hialeah."

The name that only twenty years earlier had evoked horseracing and high society, by the end of the Seventies had become the punch line to jokes about the local working class.

"Even before I came to work here," remembers Steve Bovo, sitting in his office on the second floor of the Hialeah Park clubhouse, "Hialeah Park to me was part of that historical Greater Miami, like the Fontainebleau Hotel, like the Eden Roc." Bovo, who grew up in the area, is not only the park's director of marketing but, since 1998, a member of the Hialeah City Council.

"I walked in here for the first time," recalls Bovo, "and I couldn't believe how beautiful it was." It is, he says, the city's Central Park. Bovo's job, in many ways, is to trade on the park's architecture and mythic past, to drum up other kinds of business during the ten months of the year when there is no racing. Weddings and birthday parties have become an increasingly important source of income.

According to Nilda Terrace, Bovo's assistant and the park's events coordinator, these bookings are what keep Hialeah going. "We host two, maybe three dozen weddings a year, depending," says Terrace, standing by the fountain that serves as a favorite backdrop for many of the ceremonies. "And I don't know how many quinces."

The park began hosting these events in earnest in the late Seventies, an acknowledgment of both the declining profitability of horseracing and of the transformation of Hialeah itself into a predominantly Cuban city. "The Latin people all insist on booking receptions for Saturday, because the [Catholic] Church won't marry on Sunday," explains Terrace, an energetic woman in her fifties partial to patterned blouses and large jewelry.

She shows off the various rooms available to the public, emphasizing the most attractive features of each. The moderate-size, reasonably priced Nashua and the considerably larger Citation are on the upper floors of the clubhouse, overlooking the grounds. Across from the clubhouse, standing by itself, is the Flamingo Pavilion. At almost 10,000 square feet, the room is large enough to hold 500 people. "That's the one Mr. KC is renting for his party," Terrace points out, referring to the Hialeah-born lead singer of the Sunshine Band. "He's going to have his 50th birthday party there. Lots of famous people have been invited." She begins to tick off the names: Raul Martinez, Gloria and Emilio Estefan. Pause.

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