By the '50s, the park had aged gracefully. It was founded in 1925 by aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss and his partner James Bright and then sat unused for years after the 1926 hurricane wrecked the grounds. In 1932, philanthropist Joseph Widener bought the property just as the state legalized horse betting.

Widener set out to erect a monument to horse racing in grand South Florida fashion. He and his chief architect toured Europe, drawing inspiration from British race courses and casinos on the French Riviera, basing their architecture on what they saw and importing pink flamingos from Cuba for local flavor.

For decades, Hialeah Park was a place to see and be seen during its January-through-March racing season. Photographs of Joseph Kennedy with his daughter-in-law Jackie watching races and Winston Churchill strolling the grounds still adorn the clubhouse walls.

Dennis Testa, Hialeah Park's VP of operations, has been a part of the track through its glory years, its near demise, and its revival.
Dennis Testa, Hialeah Park's VP of operations, has been a part of the track through its glory years, its near demise, and its revival.
Trainer Jackie Kirby washes a horse before a race.
Trainer Jackie Kirby washes a horse before a race.

"I'd place it at the top of most important places in Florida," Miami historian Paul George says. "Hialeah Park for decades,was the most famous of all the racetracks in the country."

According to Steven Davidowitz, author of the book Racing Thoroughbreds, if a horse won at Hialeah Park, it would almost surely succeed elsewhere. After claiming the 1948 Flamingo Stakes, Citation went on to win the Kentucky Derby, the Belmont Stakes, and the Preakness.

"The quality of the horses was always excellent," Davidowitz says. "It has the best dirt course of any track in the United States. And it's beautiful. If you were a horse player, Hialeah Park felt like you were coming home."

Other records were set in the glory years. In 1969, Testa watched Diane Crump become the first female jockey to race a horse at a major track, and he saw Seattle Slew win the Flamingo Stakes in 1977, the year the undefeated thoroughbred claimed the Triple Crown.

That golden age began to dim in the late '70s, and since then, the course has toed the line between success and closure.

Even as American sports fans lost interest in horses, Hialeah Park had its own unique problems as the city became a safe haven for Cuban refugees. "At that point, Hialeah was not moving forward economically," Davidowitz says. "And the Cubans weren't exactly interested in betting on horses."

Racing fans began to flock instead to Gulfstream Park, which opened in 1939, and Calder Race Course, which debuted in 1971. The facilities are located in Hallandale Beach and Miami Gardens, respectively, close to I-95. "Those racetracks were better positioned logistically and geographically than Hialeah," Davidowitz says. "They benefited from the growing affluent population in the northeast communities."

That's when a wealthy New Jersey real estate developer named John Brunetti Sr. stepped into the picture and bought Hialeah Park for approximately $9 million in 1977. Twenty-nine years earlier, shortly before Citation won the Flamingo Stakes, a then-17-year-old Brunetti had visited Hialeah Park for the first time to watch his dad's horses race. He was an incoming freshman at the University of Miami. "I decided then that if there was one place I wanted to enjoy the pleasures of my success, it would be at Hialeah Park," Brunetti says.

In 1968, he inherited his father's vast real estate holdings, which included developments in Ohio, New Jersey, and Florida, as well as his dad's horses and horse farm in Ocala. Nine years later, Brunetti intervened to save Hialeah Park when he persuaded the previous owners to sell it to him instead of the corporations that own Gulfstream and Calder, which were intent on closing Hialeah Park.

Brunetti saved the park, but he rubbed many people the wrong way. "Brunetti has a very abrasive personality," Davidowitz says. "He alienated segments of the national racing industry and Florida's political establishment."

But Testa says Brunetti is often misunderstood by people who don't know him well. "I've always had a great professional and personal relationship with John," he says. "Can he be difficult? Absolutely. When he wants something done, he wants it done now and done right. He's been like that for the 30-plus years that I have known him."

In this case, Brunetti was determined to overtake Gulfstream and Calder, which are owned by major corporations with deeper pockets. That desire led to destructive clashes.

In 1989, for instance, Brunetti was unable to come to an agreement with executives at Gulfstream and Calder to split up that year's winter racing dates among the three tracks. As a result, Brunetti decided to go head-to-head with his rivals despite Hialeah's disadvantages. At the same time, he alienated horsemen and jockeys by paying lower purses than Gulfstream and Calder offered.

"He defeated himself with some of the things he attempted to do," Davidowitz says. "That pushed Hialeah further down to the point it could not survive."

Brunetti disagrees, noting Gulfstream and Calder would have killed Hialeah in the '70s had he not stepped in to buy it. "My sole purpose has been to save Hialeah," he says. "That is why we engaged in the infighting with the other tracks. Unfortunately, it got to the point we were unable to continue racing."

The park straggled through the '90s, always losing ground to Calder and Gulfstream. Many of Hialeah's employees — including Testa — ended up leaving for rivals. In 1994 he accepted a job offer from Gulfstream. "Business was not looking good at Hialeah," Testa says. "I was sad, but I had no resentment about leaving. I had a young family to think about."

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8 comments
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Casinoking64
Casinoking64

Magic City Caino is very poorly run. The owners are greedy and they violate many Regulations in the Florida Gaming Laws, the place should be shut down!

Bubba The Wise
Bubba The Wise

You really captured the spirit of Hialeah Race Track, the Brunetti family and jockey Ives. Thanks for the article.

 
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