Once the grande dame of horse racing, now surrendered to time—the Hialeah Park Race Track remains the place where history and glamour converge.
By Lazaro Perez-More
On a warm summer morning, sitting in the empty grandstand of Hialeah Park, it’s easy to conjure up images of what once was. Elegantly clad women in feathered hats displaying their best jewels, and men in impeccable sum-mer suits, sporting their finest vestment. The well-dressed visitors were mostly Palm Beach socialites who traveled directly to the park’s train station to visit and enjoy one of the earliest tourist attractions in our area. Opening day at Hialeah Park was the highlight of the city’s social calendar, with extensive coverage both in the society columns, as well as the sports section. It was indeed the place to see and be seen. It is here where I meet up with Dennis Testa, vice-president of operations and lifelong associate of this legendary South Florida institution.Let’s take a look at the history of this South Florida landmark and how it has evolved.
The Hialeah Park story begins with a land boom, the birth of a city, and the sport of kings. South Florida in the 1920s was a hotbed of speculation. Cheap land, and the promise of a tropical paradise, plus sweat and determination, built this area. The park opened in 1922. It was the dream of Glenn Curtis and James H. Bright, who decided to create the first pari mutuel greyhound racetrack in America. It was built on drained swampland to lure the exclusive set to this wild region with posh, unique amenities. The park was also part of the efforts to develop the town of Hialeah. By 1925, the same year the city was incorporated, the venue was hosting some of the most critical thoroughbred races in the world as well as the first jai alai fronton in the country. Known then as the Miami Jockey Club, the park also featured a rollercoaster, plus a dance hall for lavish parties and elegant balls. The timing was right for such an ambitious enterprise. After World War I, American millionaires changed their traveling and vacation habits from the usual European destinations in the South of France, or Tuscany in favor of new entertainment venues in the U.S. created explicitly for the wealthy elite. But it wasn’t until 1930 that new owner Joseph Widener hired architect Lester W. Geisler to build a grandstand and Renaissance Revival clubhouse that faced the manicured gardens, elegant cafés, and a lake filled with a flock of pink flamingos imported from Cuba. “There was nothing around here when the park opened,” says Testa, who came to the park in 1958 as the son of the superintendent. They lived in the 220-acre grounds until the 1970s. The new installations indeed placed Hialeah on the map as one of the world’s most luxurious race-tracks. Even during the latest multimillion-dollar renovations in 2013, the owners decided to respect the original structure’s main features.
They kept the impressive staircases with elegant balustrades and arched galleries—inspired by the sleek casino in Monte Carlo and the exclusive European tracks such as Avon and Deauville—and the lush gardens that are used today as a venue for private events, weddings, festivals, and concerts. Hialeah Park is considered as elegant as the Saratoga Race Course or Churchill Downs, and Testa tells me that to enter the iconic races at the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, or Belmont, the best horses had to prove their worth at Hialeah. You can imagine the jockeys in colorful uniforms at the starting line waiting for the call to action. In those days, Hialeah was the winter horse racing capital of the world. Seabiscuit, Citation, and Seattle Slew—some of the most magnificent horses to ever compete—raced here, as did horses owned by America’s most illustrious families represented by last names such as Vanderbilt, Whitney, or DuPont, and legendary trainers and jockeys such as Eddie Arcaro, Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, and D. Wayne Lukas. The track also deserves credit for allowing Diane Crump, the first woman jockey, to race with her male counterparts.
Celebrities, artists, heads of state, and royalty made regular appearances at Hialeah Park. Winston Churchill called the park “extraordinary,” and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor bet on their favorite horses as did Jackie Kennedy, Truman, Johnson, Nixon, and DiMaggio. Other personalities who remarked on the beauty of the park were Princess Grace of Monaco, Glenn Ford, Elizabeth Taylor, Angie Dickinson, John Philip Sousa, Will Rogers, Sunny and Cher, Burt Reynolds, Jackie Gleason, as well as Louis Arm-strong and Amelia Earhart. Hollywood was no stranger to the racetrack. Films such as The Godfather, Let it Ride, and The Champ were filmed here, and Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Burt Bacharach, and countless top acts performed at the auditorium during the park’s heyday. “Back in the 50s and 60s, you couldn’t get in, on weekends,” says Testa. “We had crowds of 30,000 to 40,000 people elegantly dressed and ready to bet.” But in the 1970s, changing demographics and tastes put a dent in the park’s success. Other racetracks defied Hialeah’s domination of the winter racing season, and attendance began to dwindle. Eventually, in 2001, Hialeah Park held its last thoroughbred race after a change in state law deregulated racing dates and kept them from having the most exclusive and lucrative slots for their runs. The park went dark for eight years un-til 2009, when, under the leadership of real estate magnate John J. Brunetti—who had purchased the property in 1977—quarter-horse races were introduced. In 2013, Brunetti opened a casino to save the institution from collapse. Hialeah Park is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and is an Audubon Bird Sanctuary. The track is a little overgrown with grass, but retains the magnificence and grandeur of its glorious, storied past. Like a grand dame who has seen better days, the campus is meticulously cared for and the graceful flamingos, perennial guests of honor, soar above the lake in the middle of the track.
The bronze statue of Citation, made in Florence by Thomas Famiglietti, still stands proud as the park’s sentinel. In the present day, though, the mood and purpose of the property have radically changed. John J. Brunette passed away on March 2, 2018, in his Boca Raton home without realizing his dream of seeing thoroughbred racing at Hialeah Park come back. A moving memorial service was held ten days later on the third floor of the Hialeah clubhouse. At the end of my visit with Mr. Testa, it was difficult to know what was on his mind. He seems very enthusiastic about his job, but one could feel a sense of deep nostalgia. He has spent the best years of his life working at the park. Gazing over old photographs and telling anecdotes, his invaluable testimony stands witness to the transformation of his beloved racetrack. He recalls how it passed from being the main attraction in town to a remnant of an era that probably will never return—like the women in feathered hats and the tuxedoed men who came in the train from Palm Beach to watch the thoroughbreds race in such a bucolic setting. With a sparkle in his baby blue eyes, Testa tells me that he is hopeful to see thoroughbreds running at Hialeah Park in the future.