How horses brought Hialeah its heyday

The world elite used to clamor around a dirt track in Hialeah, decked out in dinner jackets and elaborate feathered hats, anxiously awaiting the signal.

On the field below them, jockeys in colorful suits clasped their horse’s reins, taking one final, exhilarated breath before the shot. It pierced through the air, sending a flurry through the crowd and spurring the horses into a sprint.

“And they’re off!” an announcer screamed, as the pounding of hooves rumbled through the air.

This is what Dennis Testa remembers best from his 58 years on the turf at Hialeah Park’s thoroughbred race track, once the glamorous winter sojourn of northern millionaires.

Hialeah Park used to be so powerful it pretty much owned the horseracing world in the winter.

“In those days Hialeah was like the Kentucky Derby every single day of its meet,” said David Romanik, a racing enthusiast and former lawyer for Gulfstream Park. “It was the pinnacle of racing in the winter.”

Built in 1925, it was the place to see-and-be-seen most of the 20th century: crowds of 40,000 stormed its wooden grandstand, decked in their finest to watch the world’s best thoroughbreds compete in exhilarating meets.

“I’ve seen some of the best horses in the world race here. I was a personal friend of one of the world’s best-thoroughbred trainers, Horatio Luro,” Testa says, his eyes sparkling.

Grayed and thin, Testa sits in his office surrounded by file folders and old memorabilia stacked high across the floor. They contain mementos that remind him of the park’s grandeur: old menus, photos of politicians hobnobbing with celebrities, a newspaper clipping or two.

“I’ve spent a whole day with Sonny and Cher. Angie Dickinson and Burt Bacharach had coffee in my living room. I’ve met Burt Reynolds, Jackie Gleason, Louis Armstrong. I got to meet these people,” he marvels.

It’s hard to imagine when you look around the track today. By the late 1990s, the antiquated racetrack couldn’t draw a crowd of 5,000, and in 2001, the track closed. Although it reopened in 2009, the rickety aluminum stands, once filled with people, are mostly empty nowadays. Most of the track’s event spaces, once elegantly decorated ballrooms and dimly lit lounges, are shuttered.

Today, the park is undergoing major renovations and has added a casino facility in hopes of once again being a global destination for horse enthusiasts.

Starting from scratch

Testa, today the vice president of operations at Hialeah Park, arrived from New Jersey as a seven-year-old boy in 1958, when his father accepted the superintendent position there. Back then, there was little other than the original grandstand and an old wooden clubhouse, he said. The family moved into a home on the 220-acre grounds and stayed for his whole childhood.

The map around the park was blank when Missouri cattleman James Bright and aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss founded the park in the 1920s. They built entertainment venues for the wealthy elite who spent the winter in their Palm Beach mansions, as well as a grandstand for thoroughbred racing and the country’s first Jai-alai fronton.

In 1925, the same year Hialeah was incorporated, they opened the Miami Jockey Club, complete with a one-mile tubular track, roller coaster and dance hall. The club held races from early January until mid-March, when its loyal crowds headed back north.

Gambling was illegal in Florida in 1925, but Bright and Curtiss just shrugged. With the track frequented by gangsters like Al Capone and Meyer Lansky, the operators had plenty of city officials in their pockets — everyone from the chief of police to the local politician accepted bribes to look the other way.

According to Marc Dunbar, a gaming attorney at Florida firm Jones Walker, pari-mutuel gaming – the legal wagering and betting on horse and dog racing – began largely thanks to Hialeah Park’s efforts.

“In the 20s, the track’s owners were finding loopholes to engage in racing activities,” Dunbar says. “And by the 1930s, the Depression was hitting, and the state was in desperate need of more money.”

Hialeah Park began lobbying for the passage of legislation that would legalize pari-mutuel betting, and in 1931, the state legalized wagers on horse racing in one of the most corrupt votes in Florida history. The measure passed by one vote in the Senate but was vetoed by Senator Doyle Carlton. Carlton was offered a $100,000 bribe to change his mind. He refused to accept it, but his veto was overridden. Dunbar said Hialeah Park was at the center of the pressure.

Soon after, a wealthy American art collector and New York racetrack owner Joseph Widener purchased Miami Jockey Club and redesigned the park as an Art Nouveau-inspired Mediterranean estate. Sweeping staircases with elegant balustrades led spectators to the stands, where they could take a break from the racing in one of the track’s grand cafés.

Widener imported 20 pink flamingos from Cuba to wander among the tropical landscape. The birds become an iconic symbol for the city. The track was renamed Hialeah Park and had a reputation for being the world’s “most beautiful race track.”

By the time Testa arrived in the 1950s, there was a new owner named Eugene Mori. He added the Park’s iconic Flamingo Fountain, as well as an aviary and an aquarium.

“Back in the 50s and 60s on weekends, you couldn’t get in,” recalls Testa. “We had crowds of 30,000 to 40,000 people, everyone decked out to the nines.”

Spectators came down on trains that ran directly from Palm Beach to the Park to see legendary horses like Seabiscuit, Citation, and the Seattle Slew.

Famed entertainers like Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby performed in the bustling auditoriums. Although races were held only 40 or 50 days a year, Hialeah Park was extremely lucrative.

Video courtesy of the Wolfson Archives

Working the system

The success had as much to do with playing the system. Legal gambling was tightly regulated in Florida and the law forbade competing local tracks from running at the same time.

Hialeah Park made sure it got all the prime dates in January and February by pushing a law in 1945 that gave the track with the highest legal gambling returns — always Hialeah — first dibs.

It had a stranglehold on the schedule until 1971, when Romanik’s father, who then represented Hallandale’s Gulfstream Park, argued Hialeah, Gulfstream, and South Miami’s Tropical Park should rotate the dates. The court agreed. Editor’s note: This sentence has been edited to correctly reflect the location of Tropical Park. 

For the next decade, the three big players fought it out for the prime dates. In 1988, the legislature deregulated racing days, allowing tracks to run races on the same days.

That took away the one edge Hialeah Park had left. An influx of Cubans into Hialeah drove up the population rapidly and made traffic terrible. The Park failed to attract younger audiences; they saw it as a place their grandparents might go. Hialeah simply couldn’t compete with its old competitors in more accessible locations or the new Calder Race Course.

Profits tanked, and in 2001 the Park held its final thoroughbred meet. Three years later, Gulfstream had Hialeah’s thoroughbred license revoked, arguing that Hialeah’s suspension of meets meant it had given up its right to a license. For the next five years, it was desolate. The legislature refused to give the track its thoroughbred racing license again, claiming that Florida no longer issued those types of racing licenses.

But in 2009, Hialeah owner Brunetti obtained a quarter horse permit for racing, a new type of racing license that featured shorter, faster sprints. Several tracks across the state of Florida had successfully obtained the license in absence of thoroughbred license availability. The quarter horse permit re-opened the park, while also paving the way for Brunetti to add a casino facility.

Meanwhile, the Florida legislature agreed to allow slot machines and card rooms at pari-mutuel facilities in Florida. Brunetti debuted a fully operational casino at the facility in 2013. Currently, Hialeah Park is undergoing a $40 million renovation to include a hotel, civic center, and 800,000 square feet of retail space.

The prospect of thoroughbred racing is still on the table for Hialeah Park. Brunetti is in talks with old rival Gulfstream to allow the Park to use Gulfstream’s thoroughbred license on its course.

“I think you have a generation that didn’t grow up racing and doesn’t understand how special Hialeah Park once was,” Dunbar says. “A boutique, short meet, with great purses and lots of romance around it, could be the catalyst to bring the park back to life.”

By Nicole Martinez
Nicole is a freelance writer and crop top enthusiast based in Miami Beach. A lifelong 305-er, she loves finding new stuff to love in her city everyday.