The Last Pony Show

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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.

Terrace turns and looks out over the deserted racing oval. "You know, we've got the best turf there is," she remarks, as if she had only now just remembered it was there. "Calder Race Course looks like a shopping mall. What kind of excitement do they have over there?" She shakes her head. "You can't even hear the horses coming down the stretch."

Aside from the old-world beauty of its architecture and the history contained on its track and within its walls, the most striking thing about Hialeah Park is the amount of land on which it sits: 220 acres, stretching from 21st to 32nd Street and running between East Fourth and Palm avenues. Most of the property is a combination of open land and parking lots, the actual facilities occupying only a small portion of the entire area. What the site contains, more than anything else, are possibilities.

"Nothing stops Mr. Brunetti from parceling out the land," says Bovo. "He could go to the city and just say, “Guys, I'm going to build townhouses.'" The fact that Brunetti, who made his fortune as a developer, hasn't done that, Bovo believes, is an indication of just how much he wants to keep Hialeah Park a functioning racetrack.

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Gaspar González