January 09 2012
If you love thoroughbred horse racing and you like to swap the rigours of the northern-hemisphere winter for warmer climes, there is no better place to head for than south Florida. The peak racing season in the Sunshine State runs from early January to late March, culminating in the $1m Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park near Hollywood Beach. But if you want an insight into the gilded age of American horse racing you should visit historic Hialeah Park, some eight miles north of downtown Miami.
Florida’s cachet as a winter vacation resort for rich “snowbirds” from the north-east was already well established by the time Hialeah opened in 1925. But its fortunes really took off in the 1930s after the track was bought by Philadelphia-born “High Hat” Joseph Widener, who had inherited a vast railroad and real estate fortune. He was a major art collector, but he was also a passionate lover of the Turf and president of Belmont Park racetrack in New York.
In 1930 he bought a mansion in Palm Beach and wintered there regularly for the rest of his life. He also took a controlling interest in the Miami Jockey Club and, the following year, acquired Hialeah Park and decided to transform it into the most beautiful and celebrated racecourse in North America. His architect, Lester W Geisler, toured Europe to study the layout of tracks such as Ascot, Longchamp and Deauville, and the subsequent Hialeah clubhouse was a stunning mix of old European and exotic styles, with grand Renaissance staircases, stained-glass windows and fountains. Thousands of dollars were spent on flowers and shrubs, from bougainvillea to royal palms, as well as an in-field lake, which Widener had stocked with pink flamingos and which remains a national bird sanctuary to this day. Being close to the Everglades, a snake catcher was hired who would find up to two dozen poisonous reptiles dozing by the lake daily.
Fortunately, the snakes didn’t bother Widener’s clientele and from the mid-1930s to the late-1970s, Hialeah was one of the most fashionable winter settings in the US. Social and sporting aristocrats such as the Kennedys, Winston Churchill and Frank Sinatra (not to mention Al Capone) all went there to watch great horses such as Seabiscuit, Nashua and the 1948 Kentucky Derby winner, Citation. But by the late 20th century, the changing demographic of the area and aggressive competition from Gulfstream and Calder racecourses, which were allowed to poach the prime winter dates, resulted in Hialeah’s decline. The last thoroughbred meeting was in May 2001, though it has since reopened for a limited winter season of American quarter horse racing, in which especially bred sprinters compete for just a quarter of a mile. There is an expensive redevelopment programme under consideration, too. In the meantime, Hialeah remains on the register of America’s designated National Historic Places and a ramble around its haunted grandstand is a fascinating element of any Florida holiday.
Gulfstream Park will be busy over the coming weeks with a programme of prep races for the 2012 Triple Crown, and last season’s impressive US two-year-old Union Rags is likely to be one of those involved. The bay colt is currently 10-1 for the Kentucky Derby on Coral and top US judges say it will take a good one to stop him.