When I die and go to heaven, I'll be pleased if my surroundings bear a resemblance to Hialeah.
This is America's (and probably the world's) most beautiful race track. First-time visitors have their breath taken away when they see it. Regulars never tire of it.
No track in the country has anything like the vast area surrounding the paddock behind the Hialeah grandstands. Patrons can study their racing forms or look over the horses while siting under palm trees in the midst of gardens and fountains and statues.
The three-tiered grandstand is covered with bougainvillea and decorated with hundreds of flower boxes. It looks out onto an infield of flowers and lakes, populated by Hialeah's famed flamingos.
The grandeur of Hialeah has not changed much since Joseph D. Widener built the track in the 1930s. But the times have changed, and that grandeur has become not only as anachronism, but an economic liability.
Travails of Hialeah are a familiar story. Since winter racing has become commonplace at northern tracks, Hialeah is no longer the niecca of the turf world. It is no longer even the mecca of south Florida. As the population center of this area has shifted northward, Hialeah has been left in the midst of an unaffluent, predominately Latin community. The big-spending tourists and winter residents live a lot closer to Gulfstream Park.
Hialeah was able to overcome its demographic disadvantage as long as it has exclusive posession of the so-called "middle dates" and operated at the height of the tourist season from mid-January to early March. But the state supreme court ruled that Gulfstream had an equal right to the middle dates, and Hialeah's woes began in earnest.
In the years when Gulfstream had the middle dates, Hialeah's season was run from March until May, and the track was bathed in red ink. Its demise seemed imminent until John J. Brunetti, a New Jersey developer, bought Hialeah before the 1977 season.
Brunetti was initially seen as a galiant white knight trying to save the dear old racetrack. But his methods have made him widely despised in Florida racing circles.
Brunetti decided that when Hialeah had the middle dates, he would run it as a first-class track. When Hialeah had the late dates, he would run it like Lincoln Downs.
Visitors to Hialeah last spring could scarcely believe their eyes. Cobwebs hung in the corners of the grandstand. The tore board didn't work properly. The conditions of the stable area was seandalous."In 1974," Brunetti said, "the former management had the end dates and tried to run the track the way they always did.They lost $3.6 million and went out of business. When we have the end dates, we take care of the emergency items. We just try to do the best we can."
After last season, Brunetti went to the state legislature and crusaded for permanent possession of the middle dates, opening all of the old wounds that had barely healed after years of Healeah-Gulfstream feuds.
Brunetti argued that Hialeah was designed to conduct Florida's major race meeting. "Running the end dates at Hialeah," he said, "is like playing a sandlot baseball game in Yankee Stadium."
Moreover, he maintains, Hialeah cannot make a profit with the end dates: it lost more than $500,000 last year. Gulfstream can make a profit.
Gulfstream officials answered that it would be unfair and ridiculous to punish their track for becoming so successful and popular. The legislature agreed with Gulfstream and rebuffed Brunetti's bid to take over the middle dates.
That means that Hialeah will probably continue to lead a schizophrenic existence. In 1981, like 1979, it will be a second-rate operation. But in seasons like this one, when it has the middle dates, Hialeah will be Hialeah. sThe grounds will be well-manicured; the grandstand resplendent, the quality of the racing magnificent. For the people who love this track, having the real Hialeah in alternate years seems better than having it not at all.