Hialeah Race Track was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979, and is eligible to be listed as a National Historic Landmark. However, the Hialeah city council just voted unanimously to permit the demolition of the historic stable buildings.
The track was a key element for attracting winter visitors to south Florida in the first half of the twentieth century. Tourists came to the tropics looking for glamour and excitement, and perhaps a touch of the illicit, all of which they found at the races.
The Miami Jockey Club opened in January 1925 on the edge of the Everglades. James Harrison Bright, a cattleman who had made money in with a laundry business in St. Louis, bought 17,000 acres in northwestern Dade County. His partner was Glenn Curtiss, the developer of Miami Springs and Opa-Locka, who ran also a flight school at the Curtiss-Bright Ranch. In 1907, Bright bought one square mile of frequently flooded land in what is now the Deer Park section of Hialeah. Everyone thought that he was crazy for wanting to live there, but he had heard that the area was to be drained.
To promote residential development, Bright donated land for school, churches, and municipal buildings. Rather than compete with the upper-class developments of Coral Gables and Miami Beach, Bright sought middle class homebuyers. Hialeah was incorporated in 1921, the same year Bright and Curtiss decided to build a horse track to attract more land buyers. Joseph Smoot agreed to build a track on Bright's land, and his investment paid off within 11 days of racing. The track's original landscaping was by James Donn, Sr., founder of Exotic Gardens florist and Gulfstream Park. Hurricanes in the late 1920s caused extensive damage in Hialeah, and it took some time for people to return even after things were rebuilt.
Despite the tremendous success of the Miami Jockey Club and despite the prevalence of betting at the track and other establishments, betting at horse racing was not legal in Florida until 1931. A 1927 Florida Supreme Court ban on betting suspended the Jockey Club's 1928 season, but in 1929, they had a new system called "buying option." To bet you bought a stock certificate (a postcard), and if the horse won you got a dividend. If the horse lost you were bankrupted.
Joseph E. Widener, a Philadelphia millionaire heir to a streetcar fortune, bought the Miami Jockey Club. The Widener family had been in horse racing since the 1890s. In 1931, the state legislature made it legal to bet on horse races, partly because it was a source of revenue for local governments struggling in the Great Depression. Widener hired Lester Giesler, architect, to rebuild the south Florida track, touring tracks across Europe and the United States to their best features into the Hialeah facility. Widener introduced turf racing from Europe and the Totalizer from Australia. The Totalizer was a mechanical way of calculating odds and payoffs and increased public confidence in the track's handling of bets. Widener, with the input of Bright, created Hialeah's famous infield lake with flamingos. The new Hialeah opened January 1932 after a $3 million rebuilding project.
Great horses, including Triple Crown winners Citation and Seattle Slew, raced here. A list of Hialeah stakes winners is a list of champion thoroughbreds. Although televised racing in the 1950s increased Hialeah's exposure and popularity, by the 1970s track management was threatening to close Hialeah and turn it into an industrial park. One of the track's major struggles during the late twentieth century was competition with Gulfstream Park and Calder Race Course for the best racing dates and the best horses. The last race at Hialeah was May 22, 2001, and the track has since lost its racing and betting permits.
Since the spring of 2001, the park has been largely unused, with just a skeleton crew, a flock of flamingos, and the occasional wedding. Maintenance of the large, old buildings has been minimal, and recent hurricanes have added to the burden. What will happen to this south Florida landmark and thoroughbred racing legend? One proposal is to make this the site of a new baseball stadium. Another proposal involves condominiums. Because of current state laws regulating parimutuel betting and racing calendars, it is very unlikely that horses will ever run here again.
Source: John Crittenden, Hialeah Park: A Racing Legend. The Pickering Press, Miami, Florida, 1989.
The National Park Service's Historic American Building Collection includes 92 photographs of Hialeah race track.
UPDATE 1: Dec. 3, 2006 Miami Herald article, "Hialeah Stables Lose Historic Designation" (link no longer working; not on Herald's website any more)
UPDATE 2: Beth Dunlop's Architecture column in Miami Herald, Dec. 10, 2006 "High Stakes for Hialeah" (link no longer working; not on Herald's website any more)
Save Hialeah Park!
Hialeah Park Bites the Dust Unless Citizens Unite (from blog Eye on Miami)
Crumbling Hialeah from Cindy Pierson Dulay's Horse-Races.net