(The scales in the winner’s circle of Hialeah Park. Imagine the riders that have stepped foot upon its cradle)
A few weeks back, when our great friends Rob Murphy & Michelle Blanco came up to Kentucky for the Breeders’ Cup festivities at the new Louisville Thoroughbred Society, the dynamic duo offered a generous and difficult-to-turn-down offer.
It seems as if Rob and Michelle wanted us to come to Florida, right after Thanksgiving, and spend a few days with them at their home in Stuart and then travel down to Key West for a respite at their condo in the Southern most part of these United States of America.
As we talked through the proposed plans and travel arrangements, I brought up a possible sidebar stopover — if possible. I asked if we could — possibly, maybe, perhaps, hopefully — could stop by Hialeah Park on our way South to the keys.
I knew it was off our beaten path by a few hours. I knew it might not even be possible. I knew it was a longshot. But in this sport? Long shots do come in, from time to time. And, with Michelle Blanco at the helm of the navigating wheel? Long shots come in more often than not.
Sure enough. Michelle called Hialeah.
Sure enough. Hialeah’s Casino and simulcasting area were going to be open.
Sure enough. We could come and just walk around and see the old “home place.”
Sure enough. Long shots and dreams do come true.
It had been about 40 years ago when I first visited the mecca of horse racing in the South. The spiral, staircases and columns. The fountains with all the winners of the grand Flamingo Stakes dotted the sides — dating to the very beginning and including the names of Never Bend, Nashua, Citation, Buckpasser, Seattle Slew, Spectacular Bid and so, so, so many more. The chandeliers hanging majestically in the hall and the stone statutes gracing and saluting your way.
It was the place that Midway’s own Woody Stephens introduced me to some of racing’s greats and let me sit in on their private poker game. I knew I was a new mark. I didn’t care. It was worth the cash investment. I won so much more.
It was the place where the most beautifully crafted “pink” of the Flamingos would take flight, circle the track as if they were racing themselves, and then splash down into the bluest of blue ponds in the infield. Every day. The 7th race. “The Flight of the Flamingos” would blare over the loud speakers like Bing Crosby singing at Del Mar. (Of course Michelle found the song on YouTube after a meticulous search.)
It was the place that the world’s greatest Thoroughbreds and their connections would spend the winters. It was the place that the world’s greatest horse players would congregate way before there was simulcasting and TV racing. It was “home.”
It was also home for Michelle, whose father came over from Cuba to ride horses and to later train them, too. She had spent many days and nights on the grounds with friends, but mostly family. It was “home.”
It was home for Rob, too. His family — born and raised in the Miami area and the place that help rear Rob in his roots — spent many afternoons in the grandstands. Watching. Wagering. Living life. Learning to be family to each other. And, it was the place that they later stood in the winner’s circle with the grand 2YO filly Platinum Tiara, a filly that Rob and I bred and ran 2nd in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies at Churchill Downs. It was “home.”
And, it was soon to be a place that my precious Leigh Ann learned so much about. Way more than she probably wanted to know. Way more than any woman should tolerate on a given hot and steamy day in Miami. Way more than what I could expect her to sit, stand, stroll and do. Yet, she did ever spot; every stride; every moment with both respect and a smile upon her face. She knew it was important to us. She knew it was coming “home.” And, she loved it, too.
It was a remarkable day.
We covered nearly every inch of the place.
The paddock. The fountains. The tote board by the paddock — both inside and out. The track surface. The turf track. A visit to the iguana and gators by the pond. The winner’s circle. The scales in the winner’s circle. The grandstand. The club house. The turf club. The jockey’s room.
We stopped in each spot. More to soak it in and remember as it once was and dream of what it still could be.
Hialeah Park now only runs a few days of Quarter Horse racing. The barns are gone. So, too, is most of the Spanish Moss that dropped over the roofs of both barns and horses.
The place is showing its’ age. And, the age spots and stress lines are not pretty.
It is not in ruins. But the salt water and wind have left much of the place in desperate need to love and attention.
It is a shame that our industry does not step in and preserve this institution of history and greatness. If the Breeders’ Cup wanted a permanent “home,” what really could be better? If the Jockey Club every really did anything at all, then maybe it could dip into that bank vault and snare a few gold bricks and spend it on preservation and restoration.
Those are dreams, I know.
But if any place in the history of this sport should be the subject and headline of dreams? It is this place.
It is racing’s home. Today. Let’s hope tomorrow.
But I am glad that we came to say hello again. Even if the old lady by the sea is showing her age, she is still a mermaid to me.
Hialeah Today: Through the Eyes & Lens of Gene McLean