A racing fan comes to Hialeah each winter feeling as if he is being reunited with the beautiful woman he loves.
But this year his reunion has been spoiled. He has come back to find that his lover has turned into a cheap, disheveled floozi.
Perhaps it is best to remember her as she was in her prime: the most elegant race track in America. The grandstand is a magnificent threetiered structure, bedecked with bougainvillea, offering such niceties as marble floors and flower boxes.
Patrons sitting in the stands look out across an infield of lakes and islands, populated with flaminges, behind which stands a backdrop of palm trees. Horse players who walk behind the track into the saddling area find themselves in a parklike environment of flowers, trees, fountains, even an aviary.
All of these physical features still exist. But this season they have been marred by obvious neglect.
Visitor here on opening day noticed immediately that nothing seems to have been painted, repaired or even superficially spruced up. The gate to the walking ring was off its hinges. The passageway from the paddock to the track was full of cobwebs. The infield islands were overgrown with weeds.
Many aspects of Hialeah's operation smack more of a bush-league track than the place that has been the mecca for American's racing elite.
The daily program is often full of errors and looks as if it were printed on a child's press. Photo finishes take so long to be developed that some bettors wonder if the track is sending them out to the nearest Fotomat store. Even the tote board does not work properly.
John J. Brunetti, the track's president, is commonly blamed for all of Hialeah's woes. In fact, the track is not the victim of any single villain but a victim of circumstances, of geography, of demographics.
During the course of Hialeah's 54-year history, the face of greater Miami has changed drastically. Hialeah has become an unfashionable, largely Spanish-speaking community. Affluent segments of the population have moved to the north, to such communities as Fort Lauderdale, which are convenient to Gulfstream Park but demand long and difficult drives to Hiaheah.
Hialeah could survive these disadvantages as long as it held its traditional place on the Florida racing calendar, the so-called middle dates, from mid-January to early March.
But Gulfstream Park wanted the middle dates and waged a long, legal political and public relations battle to get them. In 1971, the courts ruled that the tracks should alternate possession of the middle dates, and Hialeah's troubles began in earnest.
When Hialeah had to run the "end dates" from March to May, a time when most of the tourists were going home, its business plummeted to disastrous levels. Two owners bailed out of the track before Brunetti, a New Jersey developer, worked out a sweetheart heart deal with a desperate City of Hialeah and took over the race track's management.
Brunetti could not alter the facts of life, which were painfully evident on opening day this season. Gulfstream had just finished a record-breaking meeting, with average crowds of more than 15,000 and betting of $2.1 million. The attendance at Hialeah's opener was less than 11,000 -- the worst opening day drowd in the track's history.
Brunetti had staged a great race meeting last season, when he had the middle dates, but he has obviously adopted the philosophy that with the end dates he will merely try to cut his losses. Instead of attempting to lure customers with a first-class operation, he has tried to gouge every possible penny out of his existing patrons.
Hialeah offers 12-race programs three times a week. And Brunetti has turned his post parades into funeral processions, dragging them out so that every able-bodied customer can get to the betting windows. He has gone so far that State Steward Walter Blum has occasionally ordered the betting windows shut to force Brunetti to get on with the race.
Brunetti dreams of recapturing sole possession of the middle dates, but that is an impossible dream. The best he can hope is that Hialeah will make more money in its seasons with the middle dates than it will lose with the end dates.
If it can produce a net profit, Hialeah will alternate yearly between being a classy operation and a shoddy one. If it does not, America's most beautiful race track will be nothing but a beautiful memory.