01/11/2012 11:47PM

Hialeah Park: A photo album

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Hialeah Park photo album: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Hialeah Park is my heaven on earth. Just being there bring tears to my eyes and I want for nothing more.

Why do I feel such a spiritual connection to this haven of flamingos and palm trees?  I don't believe in past lives and, by the time I first visited, in 1991, many would say Hialeah's glory days were already gone.  I grew up near Saratoga and 'the Spa' is one of racing's great treasures.  But Hialeah...ah...Hialeah....well, it is in a different stratosphere.  It is shangri-la.

I don't pretend to understand the nuances of why the track closed in 2001 but, when it did, part of my heart went with it.  While articles reflected myriad reasons, this cynic doesn't believe everything I read and I know circumstances often force a hand.  My heart lay dormant as the track awaited its fate, until when, in 2009 it became clear that it would reopen - that, once again, racehorses would thunder down the stretch and flamingos would again soar above the infield to 'The Flight of the Flamingos' - my heart leapt.  

I know, Hialeah is not what it once was but neither is anything else in racing - or, for that matter, the world.  The beloved Ak-sar-ben and Longacres tracks are long since closed, Aqueduct and Hollywood Park seem destined for the wrecking ball, the famed twin spires of Churchill Downs have been dwarfed by expansion, and even Saratoga features 'luxury suites' in the first turn.  Hialeah can be forgiven for the fact that society, and racing, have changed.  For me, its magic and spirit are as potent as ever....if not more so.

Hialeah has emerged from its slumber.  Years worth of overgrowth has been chopped back, buildings and stairwells have been washed and painted, and broken window glass has been replaced.  The famous flamingos still fly, the purple bougainvillea still blossoms, the Citation statue still keeps watch.  The crowds again wander the grounds - including families, with laughing children who view this racing treasure through children's eyes.  The prevailing feeling there is undoubtedly positive.  Longtime staff members speak with genuine and deep affection for both for the property and the management.  

The track is presently home to Quarter Horse racing, and, wowza, those beautiful animals really rumble (and, just like Thoroughbreds, the payoffs can be impressive!).  If you're uncertain how to handicap Quarter Horse racing, ask someone for assistance - ask about the leading trainers, and jockeys, and training angles.

The roast-corn vendor is back in business (yay!), the gift shop does a solid business, and the good-natured shoeshine gent will proudly clean your shoes till they shine like new.  

Please do yourself a favor and visit Hialeah.  Introduce yourself - or reintroduce yourself - to its incredible, awe-inspiring, historical beauty.  See if the spirit moves you as it does me.  

This Saturday, January 14, is one of two Ladies' Days (the other is Valentine's Day, February 14).  Female racing enthusiasts, try to make it there (and men, there are certainly benefits to Ladies' Days)!  You can drive to the track or, if you prefer, the train also stops there.  

While enjoying a day trackside, definitely visit that gift shop.  I love the variety of T-shirts, the adorable flamingo-motif earrings, the old postcards, hats and other horse-y and flamingo-y gifts.  Purchased items are carefully wrapped in crisp pink tissue paper with a gold 'Hialeah' seal..and the order is placed in a reusable bright pink bag. 

Those who know me know I am not a shopper...so I'm sure the description above will make them chuckle. 

Above:  C'mon in!

Above:  Flamingos have been synonymous with Hialeah since 1934, when Joseph Widener imported twenty of the rare pink birds from Cuba.  In 1947, he added another one hundred.

Above:  Construction is underway at the far end of the building.  The Flamingo Fountain, built in 1957, monitors the activities.

Above and below:  artistic and often historic touches - such as the silks of Fred Hooper/Hooper Farm - are evident everywhere you look.

Above/below:  The famous Citation statue unveiled at Hialeah in 1965, and he is magnificent.  He's seen many amazing horses since he was placed there, like Buckpasser, Alydar, Forego and Seattle Slew.  

Above:  Victor Olivo heads back through the tunnel after a winning stakes race.

Above:  Braulio Baeza, a living legend and honorable gentleman, is the Clerk of Scales.   The soft-spoken Hall of Famer booted home many a winner at Hialeah during his riding years, including Graustark and His Majesty.

Above and below:  A large fountain at the clubhouse entrance features four large metal plaques honoring sportsmanship, humanity, the arts and architecture.  Touches such as this are seemingly everywhere.  Around the grounds you'll find fountains, plaques, stained-glass designs, bas-reliefs, statues, pink-toned walls, vines....  It's as if the property were created entirely for a magical movie set representing the golden age of racing.

Above:  Detail work on fountain - the W is in honor of Mr. Widener.

Above:  The beautiful staircases winding up into the clubhouse inspire thoughts of those who came before.  Who walked up these steps...Bing Crosby, John F. and Jackie Kennedy, Will Rogers, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor?

Above and below:  Quarter horse jockeys on December 30, 2011.  The jockeys' weights are similar to Thoroughbred racing, and on the date of my visit the weights varied from 122 to 126 pounds.  Above, Alex Baldillez, Jr. and, below, Oscar Hernandez.

Above:  Troy Crissup smiles on his way postward.

Above:  Winners Cartel lost his rider at the break - but, amazingly, he stayed up with most of the blazingly fast field (the winner, not in this photo, ran the 1/4-mile in :21.60).  I realize, he wasn't burdened with a jockey's weight, like the others...but still...!

Above:  How great is this colorful tram, still in service.

Above:  The bougainvillea is one of Hialeah's most famous, and long-lasting, trademarks.

Above and below:  The entrance to Sunny Jim Lane, another integral part of Hialeah's history.  Countless racetrackers remember the long line of scenic, towering trees, beneath which horses were - and still are - led from the stables to the racetrack.

Above and below:  Kenneth Goodman has been shining shoes since he was ten years old in Wilmington, Delaware.  "I was the sole supporter for my mother and sisters then," he says with a willing smile.  Nowadays, he not only makes Hialeah patrons' shoes glow, but he is very busy in the business district in Miami, too.  His nickname is Kenny G, a name a client gave him.  Did he get the nickname before or after 'the other' Kenny G., I inquire.  "About the same time," he smiles again.

"I've been blessed, I really have, because of my family when I was growing up," Kenny G. says.  He points toward his stand.  "And I'm blessed to be doing this."

Above:  A room near the main entrance features a model of Hialeah-to-be, including the addition of a world-class casino.  The main racetrack building is at top right - the long, thin rectangle.  Behind it, the black sign with pink writing represents the racetrack's location.  The stables will be in the backstretch around the final turn.

Above:  While the clubhouse has been beautifully restored, there are still wonderful areas to be fixed.  I love to think of what came before, and the small traces of aqua and deep red make me wonder:  what did this wall look like, years ago?  Was the aqua wall paper or paint?  Was the whole wall tan, or dark reddish brown?  I wish I knew.

Above and below:  The construction, underway at the far end of the building, is separated from the main crowd by a fence.  It really isn't noticeable during a day at the track.

Above:  In one area of the grandstand, several signs representing famous winners from the track's storied past still hang.  Here's hoping they'll be preserved.

Above:  Famous silks are positioned in various places around the building, stirring memories for older racegoers.  How many of us, including myself,  loved Mr. Vanderbilt.

Above:  Whoopsie!  Winners Cartel, #6, leaves his jockey behind at the break.

 

Above:  Even the dumpster reflects pride in its famous home.

Above:  Citation is aimed toward the clubhouse and racetrack.  He has kept silent watch over the grounds, seeing Seattle Slew and dormant years and Quarter horses, for nearly a half-century now.

Above:  Cowboy's Miracle, a sorrel 2-year-old filly by Cowboys Rodeo and out of a Benny Galety mare, gets a reassuring pat during her saddling.  She's not quite adjusted to the racehorse routine yet.  She has run eighth and ninth in her first two starts.

Above:  Color Stone and Victor Olivo power home first in the $95,210 FQHRA Stallion Stakes Futurity.  The time for the 350-yard stakes was 17.725 seconds.  The Oklahoma-bred Color Stone, born in 2009, has won two of seven starts - the Futurity Trial at Hialeah and this stakes.  His other starts have been at Will Rogers Downs, Fair Meadows and Remington Park (another great thing about Equibase is that it lists PPs and important information for both Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses).

Above: El Cartel Del Oro, with Oscar Delgado up, breaks his maiden in a 350-yard event in 17.526 seconds.  It was only the second start for the 2009 Florida-bred by Count Corona, and he has a second and a win.  The chart notes that the wind speed as 5 MPH - with a tail wind.  

Above:  Royal Snow Problem and Oscar Delgado win the third race - 330 yards in 16.481.   Royal Snow Problem, a sorrel Oklahoma-bred gelding by This Snow is Royal, is a racing veteran - nine years old in 2012 with 35 starts under his saddle.  He's won or placed in 19 of those efforts - very impressive!

Above:  What's My Line?  Who can guess what these five men do?  This quintet has one of the oddest jobs in racing.  They hide out behind bushes in the backstretch, awaiting a phone call to tell them it's time to move.  When the fourth race is declared official they bolt out from behind the trees, run across the track and into the infield...all to make the flamingos take flight!  After all, even flamingos have to work for their supper.

If the birds see the men ahead of time, they simply shift into the infield pond where it's hard to reach them - so staying hidden is a must. But somehow, year after year, the surprise of the running men running at them makes the birds fly around the infield for a while to the wafting tune of "Flight of the Flamingos."  The birds soon settle back down and the men retreat....until another day, when the flamingos will be surprised all over again.

Above: Juan Hernandez, a dearly amiable man who leads the quintet in their run to the flamingos, has worked at Hialeah since 1993 - including during the years the track was closed.

Above:  Foxes have resided at Hialeah for many years - at least since the 1970s.  While patrons most likely won't see any during the day's races, the beautiful animals may occasionally can be seen scurrying across the track or, in the case above, watching from afar as the horses are being saddled for the last race.  

Above:  Some silly patron tossed her ear of roasted corn as an offering to a fox in order to take a photo.  Might I add, roast corn is one of my favorite foods in the world.  As a typical Wonder-Bread girl raised in upstate New York, I never had roast corn while growing up - and my first such ear was at Hialeah in the 1990s.  I'm so happy that they're selling it again!  The stand is right near the Citation statue.  Try it, and be sure to add a brush of butter.  

Above/below:  The sun sets behind Citation on a picture-perfect day, as it has thousands of times before and, below, a small crescent moon is barely visible through the branches of a tremendous tree - a banyan tree? - near the entranceway.  Here's hoping for a brilliant future for the most beautiful racetrack in the country.  Long live Hialeah Park.  

Do you have memories of Hialeah...a favorite racehorse, day, score?  Please comment. I love this track so much that I could read stories at length and still be completely mesmerized.  Tell me about the stables, Sunny Jim Lane, the races.  Did you gallop there?  Train a horse?  Do you remember the aviary or tropical fish tanks (I've heard people speak of them but can't find anyone who remembers much detail)?  If you do remember them, what kind of birds and fish were there?  

Did you ever see a movie star there, or watch a Flamingo Stakes?  Does anyone remember when the Citation statue was unveiled?  Do you remember Braulio Baeza riding there?  Does anyone remember what the stage was for (photos on the 2010 page link, below)?  Is the incredible tree that graces the entry drive a banyan? I've seen raccoons and foxes at Hialeah but, when the track first opened in the '20s they hired a snake-catcher!  Has anyone seen snakes there?

Tell me more.  

Photographs of Hialeah Park taken in 2009, before its reopening: http://www.drf.com/blogs/hialeah-park-cont-2009-during-tracks-renovation-reopening

Photographs of Hialeah Park from early 2010, during the racetrack's first season: http://www.drf.com/blogs/hialeah-park-cont-photo-album-2010

Hialeah Park website, which includes racing dates, news and a great section on the track's history: http://www.hialeahparkracing.com

Historical footage of Hialeah Park:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TFLPA8VZIBI&feature=related

Buckpasser's 1966 Flamingo Stakes win: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N0Sy-ZyeMa0

Poignant article about Hialeah's final day of racing in 2001, by Dave Joseph of the Sun-Sentinel: http://articles.sun-sentinel.com/2001-05-23/news/0105230342_1_hialeah-owner-hialeah-park-flamingos

Excellent blog by Teresa Genaro/Brooklyn Backstretch about her first visit to Hialeah - which includes a video of the flying flamingos: http://www.brooklynbackstretch.com/2010/01/13/hello-hialeah/

Hialeah Park promotional video about the racetrack's expansion: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T41dVcUS888

For those who like to get in some simulcast betting during an afternoon (Hialeah now features betting on many of the nation's top tracks), here's the schedule: http://hialeahparkracing.com/pdf/JanSimo.pdf

With special thanks to the management and staff at Hialeah Park for their truly generous assistance and interest.  Thanks also to the Hialeah track photographers, Coady Photography, for their help.

Hialeah Park photo album: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3