03/14/2003 12:00AM

Remembering paradise lost


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - It's a good thing the sun is not scheduled to blow up for another zillion or so years, because that means one attraction of the Florida winter racing scene will stay the same for a while longer. There's no sweeter place for a snowbird to spend a weekend in March, especially after this unusually brutal winter.

Yet it's hard to visit Florida at this time of the year without feeling a sense of loss for the absence of a couple of things that only a generation ago made the Sunshine State seem like pure parimutuel paradise.

The first, of course, is Hialeah Park, which looks more and more unlikely ever to stage another live race. Hialeah was in a league of its own among American tracks, a monument to tropical excess and opulence. A majestic avenue of palm trees led to a Mediterranean palace with sweeping marble staircases and such exotica as an aquarium and an infield filled with flamingos.

Even without all that, Hialeah was a peerless racing facility, with a fast yet soft and forgiving track surface that horsemen wistfully recall as close to perfect for racing and training. It is no coincidence that so many Triple Crown winners and other champions began their greatest seasons by wintering there.

Hialeah is an unnecessary casualty of several things. There's no reason Florida racing could not have flourished indefinitely with a Hialeah-Gulfstream-Calder circuit, but decades of vicious infighting over the prime midwinter dates distracted everyone from progress, and a lack of political leadership failed to resolve a problem that cried out for simple compromise.

Hialeah also was doomed by the three most important aspects of real estate - location, location, and location. Miami grew in the other direction, away from its original downtown and instead to the north and east, where Gulfstream sat happily in the midst of perpetual suburban waterfront construction and an aging population that didn't want to travel back to the old city. The influx of Cuban immigrants to the Hialeah area also gave the neighborhood a largely unfair rap for dubious safety.

So today Hialeah sits behind locked gates as a crumbling monument to another era, a saddening waste. Races such as the Bahamas, Everglades, Flamingo, and Widener have simply vanished, probably forever.

For someone who followed many a glorious afternoon at Hialeah with an evening at Hollywood Greyhound Park, a recent visit to the dog track proved nearly as depressing as Hialeah's absence. Hollywood was once the Hialeah of dogdom, a cheerful and bustling place packed with winter tourists that showcased the nation's best greyhounds, barking immortals such as Downing and P's Rambling.

These days, with its deserted parking lots and closed and unlit expanses of stands, you can barely tell that Hollywood is open. A crowd numbering in the dozens watches the live racing and the only action is at an indoor sports bar called The Doghouse, where a small alcohol-fueled group gives nightly proof that if there's a race being run somewhere in the world, someone will bet on it.

Seemingly without past performances, the last dog-track attendees are forsaking the live greyhounds for simulcast bets on Ohio harness races and Thoroughbreds running in Australia. Gone is the festive sound of jaunty military marches playing as the greyhounds head to the starting boxes, along with the gift shop and the trophies and tributes to champion dogs of yesteryear.

It deepens one's appreciation that there's still a Gulfstream. It's not Hialeah, and it still has its problems, including a monotonously speed-favoring racing surface and an ongoing identity crisis between being a concert or a racing venue. But Magna Entertainment deserves high marks for restoring the meet's quality and appeal after a 2002 season so disastrous that the Fair Grounds and even the Aqueduct inner-track meeting threatened to supplant it. The investment in the Palm Meadows training facility has paid off with fuller fields and a significant increase in total handle.

The new joint convention of the Thoroughbred Racing Associations and the Harness Tracks of America last Wednesday through Friday drew strong attendance and participation from top racing officials from around the country, most of whom stayed for Saturday's Florida Derby, the crescendo of the meeting. There also seemed to be a healthy turnout of New York and Kentucky horseplayers, the faces you used to see regularly in Florida during the winter.

Simulcasting has removed a lot of the seasonal travel of the East's most devoted fans, but there seemed to be a shared impulse to reunite at a renewed Gulfstream, if only for a weekend.