Thursday, November 30, 2006

The Sun is Setting on Hialeah's Race Track

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


  1. Anonymous7:05 AM

    Hialeah Race Track should always
    remain & is a Great Part of Miami's
    Hitory & Financial+ Tourst attractions in the Past & since I
    was a Jockey & rode there in the
    late 60's & early 70's etc..etc..

  2. Anonymous7:33 AM

    Was there ever an PANAMERICANA race held at Hialeah? Have sterling buckle, palm tree, long stable, no date or other ID. Trying to find stable..

  3. Anonymous11:49 AM

    I grew up near Hialeah & loved going to see the beautiful horses run. Hialeah is a very unique Race Track with its history going back to the early 1920's. The grounds are landscaped with aged banyan trees and lovely bougainvillea. There is a certain charm about Hialeah. Perhaps it is the famous horses and jockeys that once raced there. Even Secretariat stayed at Hialeah during the winter months prior to winning the Triple Crown in 1973. (On March 9, 1973 Secretariat was transported back north.) Many other famous horses such as Citation, Bold Ruler, Foolish Pleasure, Seattle Slew, Alydar and Spectacular Bid won the Flamingo Stakes which was held at Hialeah. Not to mention the many famous Jockeys, Ron Turcotte, Eddie Arcaro, Bill Shoemaker, Jorge Velesquez, Edgar Prado and Angel Cordero Jr. to name a few. I pray Halsey Minor can purchase Hialeah and make the dream come true and restore Hialeah to its original Grandeur of Horse Racing.
    Read other stories on Hialeah:
    http://news.bloodho 8.htm?id=46308

    http://www.palmbeac tent/sports/epaper/2 008/05/22/0522hialea h_park.html?cxntlid= inform_sr

    http://www.palmbeac tent/sports/epaper/2 008/07/18/0718hialea h.html

    http://www.palmbeac nt/sports/epaper/200 8/07/21/0721hialeah. html?cxtype=rss& cxsvc=7&cxcat=46 9334.html

  4. Guy Brickman6:47 AM

    Our family moved to Hialeah in 1942 We purchased an old Road House on W. 24 St It was called "Club 24" and used for a whore house, bar and gambing hall, part of the building was finished with wood floors, windows etc, the back part was not finished with concrete floors, no windows and rafters.
    In 1946 our father died leaving 6 boys under nine and trying to survive.
    Hialeah Race Trach was our savor, we rented rooms to the worker, grooms, hot walkers & jockeys. We sold news papers at the track, we walked horses in the a.m. Hialeah Race Track was our playground and a place to go. During the season they provided movies for the stable hands which we took advantage of. We parked cars for .25 Without Hialeah Race Track I'm not sure what would have happen to our family but I do know that because of it we were able to stay together.
    When Bernetti puchase the track, an old timer said "He is not a horsemen, he will not be good for the Track"


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