Hialeah is sticking out its tongue at Gulfstream Park and bragging that our track licked your track.
This is a renewal of the annual sandbox game in which Florida's two major race tracks try to outshoot each other. They're telling the state racing commission theirs is the track that could deliver the most tax money to the state, and ought to have the preferred racing dates.
Each wants the middle dates in January-February-March. And each wants deliverance from the tailend dates that follow, when the tourists and their wallets are thinning.
It is Hialeah's time to gloat. Its recently closed meeting showed a 3.49 percent betting increase and 3.25 percent more attendance then when Gulfstream had the middle dates last year. So there, said Hialeah.
"Nonsence," said Joe Tanenbaum, a Gulfstream official and by nature anti-Hialeah. "Their figures are right, but they ought to be ashamed of them. A measly 3 percent increase in a year when Florida is having its biggest tourist season in history."
Hialeah should suppress those figures instead of boasting about them Tanenbaum said. "Our Gulfstream meeting in its first week is showing a 35 percent increase in betting."
This year's Florida tourist boom is real, generated by the prolonged freeze in the North. At the end of February, absolutely no room was available at the two dozen major hotels in the Miami area. On Motel Row, the "no vacancy" signs have been a fixture.
The Florida racing story for the last three decades has always been a tale of two tracks - Hialeah, which is almost due west of the big Miami Beach hotels, and Gulfstream, 15 miles north in Hallandale. It has been marked by that continual quarrel over the preferred dates. An enforced truce exists until after 1981 because the state racing commission has voted an alternativepattern of dates for four years. But a fact defying understatement is that two tracks do not love each other.
Hialeah used to be the only track in town and believed in those early years that it was eternally safe from challenge. It was Miami's proud showplace. When Gulfstream started up, it was no match for the swank of Hialeah, with its climate of high society to go with the mansion-type pink clubhouse, where the Wideners spoke only to the Vanderbilts and the Vanbilts spoke only to the Woodwards, or the Phipps Hialear's infield lake was the playground for the imported white flamingos from Cuba, sprayed to match the Clubhouse pink.
Certain other people who were told to wear jackets and ties, and that no issue would be made of their bank accounts, were also allowed in the clubhouse to dine and bet. But most of these were still in awe at the opulence that began with the stately, tuffed royal palms that lined the driveways at measured paces toward Hialeah's never-never land.
Early Gulfstream was a track on the other side of the tracks, and quickly voted automatic second-rate status by Hialeah society, which lay store by the greater beauty and so-called traditions of the older track. It was at Hialeah where the time-honored race-track idiom of "foul claimed" was ruled out of the language. The Wideners, who tended to be veddy British, substituted "objection".
Some 10 years ago, Hialeah started to slip, and Gulfstream came on fast. The demographics began to be felt. A gradual but steady migration north toward Hollywood, Hallandale and Fort Lauderdale by both Miami natives and tourists left the middle and south portions of Miami Beach, where the action used to be, comparatively empty of bettors.
Now central to much of the Dade County population and closer to populous Hollywood and Fort Lauderdale is Gulfstream.
"The Hialeah area was left very much to the Cubans and Latins don't bet much on the horses. They bet on jai-alai," said Joe Tanenbaum. He said he had figures to show that 17 of every 26 persons moving into Dade County are Latins.
The Widener heirs no longer cared to handle a declining Hialeah and sold out cheaply to another monied and social group dedicated to saving the showplace track. John Galbraith, prominent race-track figure and owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates, was one of these. But failing to restore Hialeah's eminence, the Galbraith group indicated it would be happy to sell at a discount.
There were no serious takers for a spell until last year when John Brunetti, a New Jersey business man, made an offer and got the track with the help of a sweet heart deal by the city of Miami, which feared the famous place would go fallow. The taxpayers, in effect, underwrote the deal. Glorious Hialeah was sold in a distress sale.
Hialeah operated decently well this season, if not spectacularly, but it is being upstaged by the track to the north. Still, proud is Hialeah of its famed Wildener Handicap and Flamingo Stakes, which, as usual are $100,000-added races. But that isn't big money anymore. Gulfstream is upstaging 'em with three races at $150,000 indicating where the action is now.