Horse Racing to Return to Florida's Historic Hialeah

For years, the fabled Hialeah Park race track has sat idle — battered, broken, and left to rot.

These days, fresh paint coats the walls, pink flamingos are practicing their familiar moves and some of the luster has been restored to Florida's grand old track. On Saturday, those famous flamingos are expected to fly again, when Hialeah reopens for its first race day in nearly a decade.

"No track has a feeling like this," said owner John Brunetti, who expects 10,000 to 15,000 people to walk through the gates for quarter horse racing.

The once-elegant treasure is nestled in a blue-collar neighborhood of mechanic shops and tile depots. Sweeping staircases welcome racegoers to the grandstand, which looks out over the racing oval and the flamingos that have made their home in the middle of the track.

In the glory days, the birds would loop the track on racedays, putting on a show for the women in their Sunday best and men in jackets and ties. Moments spent there seemed special, people spotted there were important. It was swanky, opulent and, at times, a magnificent sight.

"It was like a Hollywood premiere every weekend, every Saturday and Wednesday when we had the big races," said Tommy Roberts, a former television broadcaster and vice president and general manager of the park. "You had all the sports stars, the big political figures ... It was a who's who parade. The best horses in the country. The best jockeys and trainers. It was absolutely the finest that American racing had to offer."

Hialeah, which was built in the 1920s, slipped into disrepair after its last live race in 2001. The park, once visited by Winston Churchill and a host of champions including Citation and Seabiscuit, was beaten by the elements. Vines swallowed its grandstand walls, fountains dried up and dust covered its seats. Grass and hedges grew wild in the racing oval and holes dotted pink and white striped awnings.

With opening day approaching, the paddocks have been repaired, the grass has been tamed and this week, Brunetti says, the lily pads will be pulled from a reflecting pool beneath a statue of 1948 Triple Crown winner Citation, which also won Hialeah's Flamingo Stakes.

"It's old and yet it's new," Brunetti said. "There's not a bad seat in the place. It was built like the Rock of Gibraltar. I can't take credit for that, but I'm thankful for it."

So far, about $12 million to $13 million has been spent to restore the park.

Some portions of the park remain closed off to hide the peeling paint, dilapidated structures and mold-spotted walls. Some trees still lean toward the north, the result of a hurricane that ripped through the park years ago. But much of the site has been spiffed up and restored.

"It was something that almost slipped away," Brunetti said of the track. "I believe this time, not only (the South Florida community) but the thoroughbred industry in the state and the country realized that it could go away. I think everyone would be very sorry if it did."

Tropical weather aside, Hialeah also struggled with the thoroughbred racing industry and regulation. The park was previously a destination for thoroughbreds, but the track lost its permit for that type of racing in 2004. It now has a much easier-to-obtain permit for quarter horses, which are bred for sprinting, that will race instead.

"It's like anything in life. It's like serving an apprenticeship," Brunetti said. "I think basically, a great deal of my training or my attitude about life has been taking the necessary steps. I was fortunate enough to go to a military high school and you learn about the chain of command and responsibilities until you're promoted. And I think everything in life is the same way. This is a new life, and we're starting from the bottom."

Those familiar with the park's storied history are welcoming racing's return, no matter what form.

"I think it's better to see a piece of property used rather than sit there and fall apart," said Joe Aulisi, of the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. "At least it's a step toward perhaps restoring thoroughbred racing."

Parts of the project are still not finished, and a complete redevelopment plan for the area surrounding the park is also in the works. In total, Brunetti says he plans to spend a little under $1 billion on the total plan, which includes retail stores and a theater.

"It's going to be a living experience," Brunetti said. "People will see it developed, people will enjoy it, it'll be year-round activity. The combination of thoroughbred and quarter horse racing, the hotel that we're going to be build, and the bowling alleys and the theaters and the convention center and everything else. It's going to be a real destination."

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The Associated Press

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