12/23/2009 12:00AM

History challenge

Email

Saturday's 34th running of the Tropical Park Derby at Calder, the first graded stakes of the year for 3-year-olds, honors a racetrack that was for 41 years known as Florida's "friendly track."

Tropical Park was located just off Bird Road in an unincorporated area of Miami-Dade County near the city of Coral Gables.

Opened on Dec. 26, 1931, Tropical Park was the first track to operate legally in the state and under the guidance of a state racing commission following enabling legislation passed in June that year by the Florida legislature. Gambling had "technically" been illegal in Florida since 1911.

Tropical conducted its final day of racing on Jan. 15, 1972. Its meeting then moved to the new Calder Race Course, where it remains to this day.

In its last two decades, Tropical conducted an annual meeting from mid-November to mid-January, followed in order by Hialeah Park and Gulfstream Park.

Ironically, Tropical Park never ran a race known as the Derby. The Tropical Park Derby was inaugurated during the 1975-76 meeting at Calder.

Test your knowledge of this colorful track from the past and the race named in its honor.

1. Following the legalization of parimutuel betting in Florida in 1931, William V. "Big Bill" Dwyer purchased the South Miami Kennel Club, an abandoned dog track near Coral Gables, with the intention of turning it into a Thoroughbred track. To help him run it, he lured Frank Bruen away from Hialeah as general manager.

The first big problem the two faced was the fact that the grandstand - built for dog racing at night - faced west. The sun would blind daytime spectators. How did Dwyer and Bruen resolve this problem?

2. Dwyer's hiring of Bruen and his decision in 1931 to run races in direct competition with Hialeah - 15 miles away - incensed Joseph Widener, the head of Hialeah, and started a feud between the two that lasted their lifetimes.

It also started a battle for racing dates in south Florida that has continued for more than 75 years. A 20-year battle between Gulfstream Park and Hialeah eventually ended with Hialeah shutting down at the end of 2001. (It reopened a month ago with Quarter Horse racing.) And in recent years, Frank Stronach, chairman of Gulfstream Park, has at times suggested additional dates for his track that overlap with Calder.

How was the Tropical-Hialeah conflict resolved in 1931-32?

3. Dwyer was a flamboyant character who had once spent time in federal prison for bootlegging. Deeply in debt because of heavy gambling, he allowed Tropical to be infiltrated by Mafia families from Chicago. The state ordered the track sold in 1941.

Another flashy gambler, Saul Silberman, bought the track in 1953. He too found himself greatly in debt and was bought out by William McKnight, chairman of Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Co. (3M).

McKnight introduced a novel innovation at Tropical Park in 1966. What was it?

4. For much of its history, Tropical Park's signature race was the Tropical Park Handicap, usually run on closing day. Al Hattab won the final running of the $50,000 race at Tropical Park in 1971. (The race was not contested at Tropical's final meeting.)

The Tropical Park Handicap was revived at Calder during the 1984-85 season. Its name was changed during the 1997-98 meeting. What was the new name?

5. The Tropical Park Derby, run in recent years on the grass, has not had a significant impact on the Triple Crown races - with one huge exception. The ill-fated Barbaro started his 3-year-old season winning the 2006 running. Four months later, Barbaro scored a stunning Kentucky Derby victory.

Barbaro was not voted an Eclipse Award, but one Tropical Park Derby winner was voted champion. Name him.

Answers

1. Bill Dwyer had been operating St. Johns Park in St. Augustine in north Florida when he decided to move his racing operations to south Florida.

(Note: While gambling was illegal in Florida from 1911 to 1931, tracks like St. Johns, Hialeah, and others operated with a variety of gimmicks such as oral wagering. At one time, bookmakers even sold postcards with horse's names and odds on them. Winning postcards could be redeemed at the stated odds.)

Dwyer bought a deserted dog track and asked Joseph Widener of Hialeah to work with him in a joint venture. Widener refused. Dwyer then proceeded to hire away Widener's general manager, Frank Bruen.

Because the dog track's grandstand faced the blinding daytime sun in the west, Dwyer and Bruen had the stands jacked up onto rail cars. Rail tracks were set allowing mules to pull the stands on the rail cars to the other side of the track, facing east.

After less than two months of construction, the facility was turned from a dog track into a Thoroughbred track. Dwyer named it Tropical Park.

Tropical operated uninterrupted for 41 years until its closing in 1972. Seven years later, the facility was purchased by Miami-Dade County and today is a multi-purpose recreation center and park that still retains the name Tropical Park.

2. The Florida State Racing Commission had been in operation for less than six months when it faced its first crisis.

Dwyer requested a 50-day meeting beginning Dec. 31, 1931. Much of the meeting would have overlapped with Hialeah, which was to open Jan. 15, 1932.

The commission approved shorter meetings for the two tracks, but still with significant overlapping. Both tracks appealed.

After hearing the appeals, the commission approved a split meeting with Tropical opening Dec. 26 and closing Jan. 16. Hialeah was given a 36-day stand from Jan. 14 to Feb. 27. Tropical reopened Feb. 22 and concluded March 19.

Neither track was happy, but the commission stood its ground. Widener was furious and ordered that horses campaigning at Hialeah could not campaign at Tropical and vice versa. The racing commission ruled this action illegal. Widener backed down.

3. One of the biggest stories of racing in the 21st century is the introduction of synthetic surfaces at major tracks around the country. But 40 years ago, it was also a big story in racing.

As chairman of the company that manufactured Tartan turf for sporting events, William McKnight installed a synthetic track inside the dirt track at his Tropical Park. The first race was staged Nov. 16, 1966. One race at the distance of one mile was staged each day during the meeting. The surface never caught on - even after a layer of sand was added on top.

Calder opened with a synthetic 3M surface under its main dirt track in 1971, but it was eventually removed entirely by 1992.

4. The Tropical Park Handicap was renamed in 1997 to honor Fred W. Hooper - a longtime leader in Florida's breeding industry. (The race was not run this year - a victim of Calder's purse cutting.)

Hooper, who died at the age of 102 in 2000, bred and/or raced the winners of more than 100 stakes, including the Kentucky Derby in 1945 with his first Thoroughbred, Hoop Jr.

Hooper's favorite filly was his Florida-bred Susan's Girl, an Eclipse Award winner in 1972, 1973, and 1975.

5. The 3-year-old Kitten's Joy scored a 4 1/2-length win in the Jan. 1, 2004, Tropical Park Derby. He finished the year running second to Better Talk Now in the Breeders' Cup Turf at Lone Star Park.

Kitten's Joy won six grass stakes in 2004, including two Grade 1's - the Secretariat at Arlington and the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic at Belmont Park - for owner-breeder Ken and Sarah Ramsey.

A son of El Prado, Kitten's Joy outpolled Better Talk Now and was voted the Eclipse Award as outstanding male turf horse.