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Says Steve Wolf, a former racing director at Pompano Park: "This is what they know. They haven't done anything else for 60 years. They're going to fight tooth and nail and down to the last dime to keep this business going."
Noelia Rodriguez comes to the dog track now just out of habit. She's been betting on the greyhounds here nearly as long as she's been married to Armando, her husband of 55 years. The stooped Cuban couple sits in the air-conditioned clubhouse tracking dozens of races simulcast from places they've never been: Birmingham, Phoenix, Corpus Christi, and, even at midnight, Australia.
450 NW 37th Ave.
Miami, FL 33125
Region: Out of Town
These days, they can't muster up much excitement. "It's something to do during the day," Noelia says. Despite the elegant paint job and manicured buffet, the joint has lost its luster. It's now just a half-empty amphitheater of hundreds of doll-size TV monitors and dozens of weathered faces and guayaberas.
"I remember the first time I came: September 1966. I remember it because it was the month we came from Cuba, and it was my birthday," Armando says. "Three floors, all for dog betting. Races every day, into the night. You couldn't find a parking space. They had car giveaways. They did something called a supermarathon sometimes, where the dogs went around for two laps."
"Those were some dogs," Noelia recalls.
Magic City has been around in one form or another since 1931, when Jacob Sher, a thoroughbred breeder, opened it as the second dog track in the county, after Miami Beach's. Sher's place was called the West Flagler Kennel Club and drew a less well-heeled crowd than its peer to the east.
Back then, the city was a cesspool of unregulated gambling. Aside from the greyhounds, there were cockfights in Hialeah and roulette wheels in beach clubs. Between 1935 and 1937, slots were legalized and appeared everywhere, from hotel lobbies to barbershops. Gangsters such as Meyer Lansky pocketed the profits; they also operated casinos in the free-for-all that was Fulgencio Batista's Cuba. "Gambling was totally wide open," historian Paul George says. "In the words of a sheriff back then: 'Give the tourists what they want.'"
Isadore Hecht moved to Miami Beach in 1929 and saw the racket's financial potential. The 25-year-old Jewish tomato and banana importer was friendly with Lansky. When Congress clamped down on illegal gambling in 1953, Sher decided to sell, and Hecht bought the track for $2 million. At the time, a day at the kennel club cost a quarter. But the place was so popular the annual handle hovered at $14 million.
The gamble paid off. In the next few years, Miami solidified its place as a destination spot with the construction of a Hydra of hotel beauties: the Fontainebleau, the Eden Roc, the Carillon, the Deauville, and the Doral Beach. By 1960, Hecht transformed the faded track into an art deco jewel box of a dog track with a 5,000-seat auditorium, steam-heated grandstand, and refurbished clubhouse. Time magazine called it the "White House of dog racing."
Flagler soon outdrew the famed Hialeah Racetrack. Frank Capra's A Hole in the Head, a movie about a down-on-his-luck gambler and his big-shot brother, was filmed here. The gambler: Frank Sinatra. Edward G. Robinson played his brother.
By the 1970s, Miami began to lose its destination status. Walt Disney World opened in 1971, and cheap airfare to the Caribbean cut into South Florida's tourist dollars. The state asked voters to allow gambling in 1978 as a way to shore up dwindling coffers. South Florida developers spent $2 million, pointing to the success of Atlantic City, but popular Gov. Reubin Askew took issue, claiming the mob would return. Dog and horse track owners — including the Hechts — campaigned against the casinos, believing they would eat into their core audience. Armed with just $1 million, gambling opponents won by a whopping 70 percent to 30.
But the Seminole Hard Rock opened the nation's first high-stakes bingo hall in Hollywood the next year, and nontaxable cruises-to-nowhere appeared around the same time. Tropical Park Race Track was closed in 1972, the Miami Beach Kennel Club was demolished in 1980, and the Biscayne Dog Track was shuttered in 1996.
As for Flagler: Isadore Hecht died in 1977. Nightly handles declined to $450,000, and the place fell into grimy disrepair. But then Hecht's son-in-law, Fred Havenick, took over. The imposing New York lawyer quickly noticed casino gaming and Cuban émigrés were the future. In the mid-1980s, he allowed a flea market, casually referred to as el pulguero de los perros (the dogs' flea market), to set up shop on the weekends in the parking lot.
"I started in Los Perros when it was really something," says Orlando Gay, who opened his seafood stand-cum-restaurant at the track in 1985. "You couldn't find parking in those days. Business was so good a bum could make $100 just asking for change at the entrance."
In 1994, Havenick teamed with big corporations such as Bally's and Harrah's to bring limited gambling to the ballot. They raised $10 million, but the measure failed. Nevertheless, the big companies swooped in to buy out the mostly family-owned pari-mutuels. Isle of Capri bought Pompano Park, Churchill Downs purchased Calder, and Magna acquired Gulfstream. In 2000, the three and Mardi Gras — then the Hollywood Greyhound Track — created a political action committee.