At halftime of the frigid Cincinnati-San Diego football game on Sunday, the subzero temperature prompted some philosophical speculation by NBC commentator Pete Axthelm. "If God had intended me to be here," he wondered, "then why did he create Hialeah?"
To people who know and love this track, it hardly seems hyperbolic to cite Hialeah as one of the prime examples of God's handiwork. Because the place is so beautiful and so special, it seems wrong that its very existence should be jeopardized by economics and politics.
Built in 1925, Hialeah was rebuilt in 1932 by Joseph D. Widener, the patrician horse owner who wanted to outdo the grand European race courses and construct the most beautiful track in the world. He succeeded. Spectators sit in a grandstand covered with bougainvillea, look out over an infield lake populated by Hialeah's famous flamingos and watch the horses race down a backstretch with a backdrop of Florida pines.
But Hialeah has far more virtues than its pretty scenery. There is no more comfortable place to play the horses. A bettor can spend the afternoon sitting under a palm tree in the spacious area around the paddock, surrounded by flowers and fountains and statues. If he wants to survive here for long, however, he must pay more attention to the Racing Form than to the flora, because no race meeting in America offers such challenges--and opportunities.
Because of Hialeah's allure, top stables from New York, Kentucky, Illinois and New Jersey come here for the winter to compete against resident Florida horses. The equine population is so large that Hialeah can offer 10 competitive 12-horse fields every day--along with nine exactas, four trifectas, a daily double and a pick-six. It's a gamblers' paradise.
The races are so complex that I spend fully two months preparing for this meeting, calculating speed figures for tracks across the country, learning the modi operandi of the trainers in Florida, watching the local horses run at Calder before the Hialeah season opens. For the next seven weeks, I will study the Racing Form obsessively. The prospect that the challenge and excitement of Hialeah racing might not be a permanent part of my life seems unthinkable.
But the changes that have occurred in this area once would have seemed unthinkable, too. The center of South Florida's population has been moving steadily northward, and the affluent citizenry now lives in such communities as Hollywood, Hallandale, Fort Lauderdale and Boca Raton; Hialeah is convenient to none of them.
Shifting demographics have been hurting Hialeah for years, even before the influx of Cubans and Haitians and the high crime rate became subjects of national attention and intense local concern. Now a would-be race goer from one of the communities to the north must drive through the Liberty City area, where the 1980 riots erupted, into a city where one may see a bumper sticker reading: "Will the Last American to Leave Hialeah Please Remember to Take the Flag?"
Hialeah Race Track remains a beautiful oasis in the middle of these problems, but its business has inevitably been affected. On the first two days of this meeting, which opened Friday, Hialeah did $618,000 less business than Gulfstream Park generated when it was running on comparable dates last year.
John Brunetti, the Hialeah track's president, hoped to stimulate new business by accepting telephone wagers from cities throughout Florida, but so far Tel-A-Bet has been a bust. He keeps trying to take permanent possession of the prime midwinter racing dates, instead of alternating with Gulfstream, a scheme that would enable the track to remain profitable. But the state racing commission could not justifiably penalize Gulfstream for its success. Nothing short of divine intervention seems likely to revive Hialeah's fortunes.