Aug 11th 2008 11:59 pm |
Originally published on August 11, 2008. Updated format and slight content revisions on 4/1/2015
Hialeah Park in Miami, Florida – currently on life support – received a boost recently with the news of “rich guy” Halsey Minor’s interest in reviving the great racetrack. Skepticism is a healthy state of mind for the race fan but after hearing Mr. Minor discuss his intentions with Steve Byk on At the Races last Wednesday (8/6) my skepticism has evolved into cautious optimism. I encourage everyone to listen to the interview (see link in Notes and Sources section below).
Halsey Minor is a business man but, more importantly, he is a racing fan who doesn’t look at the sport with dollar signs in his eyes. He rejects the notion that slots are necessary to make a racing venue viable. If you are a racing fan who understands its intrigue beyond cashing tickets then Halsey Minor’s plan for Hialeah is worth paying attention to. Success at Hialeah could have repercussions for the game that go beyond South Florida just as it did in the 1930s.
Image: Hialeah Park Race Track on Florida Derby Day, March 31, 1931 (Library of Congress)
The story inspired me to do some digging in the New York Times for stories of Hialeah’s early days. Joseph Widener is the person most often connected with turning Hialeah into the racing palace it became in the 1930s. The track began running thoroughbred races in 1925 under the flag of the Miami Jockey Club but it was Widener who transformed the track into the most beautiful racing venue in the country.
When Widener purchased a controlling interest in the Miami Jockey Club in 1930 he made plans to make an already outstanding venue into one of the best. On being named the chairman of the Jockey Club’s executive committee, it was said of Widener, “He will be in direct charge of a plan to make the Miami Jockey Club a Winter Saratoga.” (Note: The track was referred to as the Miami Jockey Club from 1925 until about 1930 but soon after became known as the Hialeah Park Racetrack)
Image: The odds board at Hialeah Park, 1938
(Photo by Marion Post Wolcott, Library of Congress)
Widener began making immediate changes and improvements. At the conclusion of the 1930 meet, John Kieran’s Sports of the Times column reported on the “Widener Influence”:
Incidentally, the last race hadn’t been run at Hialeah before Joseph E. Widener’s hired helpers were hauling palm trees and imported shrubs for planting beyond the backstretch and around stables. Other rich owners go for improving the breed, but Mr. Widener specializes in improving the tracks. Apparently, he believes with John Keats that a thing of beauty is forever and is determined to put as many race tracks as possible in the joyous class.
When the owners and trainers stand in the paddock and talk blinkers, bandages, and breeding, Mr. Widener brings the subject of English elm for stable shade, boxwood for borders, red cedars for the north boundary, catalpas for June flowering and sweet gums for Autumn color.
He is still working on Belmont Park, and he has just begun at Hialeah, He may not win the Derby this year, but he is a furlong out in front for the sweepstakes in landscape gardening.”
Widener may have started simple, but two years after the landscaping began, his grand vision for Hialeah came to pass. Back to to the New York Times January 21, 1932:
Joseph E. Widener’s Hialeah Park race track recently revamped and beautified at a cost of approximately $1,300,000 will inaugurate its 1932 season tomorrow as thoroughbreds thunder down the stretch in the first seven races of a 38-day meeting…
“The opening will be a gala affair and a fashion parade for members of the Winter resort colonies along the Florida coast. Social registerities who have arrived at Palm Beach and Miami since the holidays will follow the custom of several years in accepting the Hialeah Park Inaugural as the semi-official signal for opening the Winter sports and entertainment program.
The meeting will end Feb 27, with the running of the $10,000 Florida Derby.”
MY COMMENT: This isn’t the same Florida Derby currently run at Gulfstream Park (that started in 1952). The Florida Derby at Hialeah was run for the first time in 1926 and became the Flamingo Stakes in 1937. The Falmingo was won by such greats as Citation, Bold Ruler, Buckpasser, and Seattle Slew (see list of all winners)
There is a possibility that Tropical Park will not reopen until Feb. 29 to prevent conflict with the Hialeah dates, but this has not been announced officially…
“An Australia totalizator, built for Mr. Widener at a cost of $300,000 and used in connection with pari-mutuel wagering systems legalized in Florida in 1931, will be a feature of the Hialeah race meeting.
Approximately 800 horses are stabled at the Widener track on the outskirts of Miami, ready to enter the seven race programs. They represent the nations most prominent stables….
“The beautification program at Hialeah Park was undertaken by Mr. Widener after the Florida Legislature legalized racing and pari-mutuel wagering last summer over the veto of Governor Doyle Carlton. A total of 20,000 tropical trees, shrubs, and vines were placed to make the plant a tropic bower. The mile and a quarter racing strip circles an artificial lake, dotted with small islands, while walks and driveways are lined with royal palms and Australian pine trees”
The similarities between Joseph Widener and Halsey Minor are difficult to ignore. Neither man need(ed) racing to make their fortunes, their fortunes have already been made (or, in Widener’s case, inherited). Both appear to be driven by a love of racing and understand the power of place when it comes to our great sport. Joseph Widener used his wealth and influence to establish Hialeah as one of the wonders of American sport, let’s hope Mr. Minor can do the same to re-establish the track to its rightful place. And who knows, maybe bringing back Hialeah would send a positive ripple through the sport, just as it did in the early 1930s. Widener’s obituary stated: “In 1931 and 1932 a great expansion of horse racing took place in various sections of the country, all directly traceable to Mr. Widener’s pioneering in Florida.”
NOTES AND SOURCES
READ MORE ABOUT HIALEAH PARK:
horse-races.net – links to additional resources and photos of the track from 2006
National Historic Landmarks Program
Photo Gallery at icuban.com
Save Hialeah Park – includes links to the latest news on Halsey Minor’s plan to re-open the track and a great collection of historic images
Link to Halsey Minor’s interview with Steve Byk on At the Races. The interview is about half way through the first hour of the show on August 6.
ARTICLES AND IMAGES USED FOR THIS STORY:
“Miami Track Opens Before Gala Crowd “, New York Times, January 16, 1925
“J.E. Widener Takes Miami Track Post”, New York Times, January 1, 1930
“Sports of the Times”, New York Times, March 15, 1930
“Flying Heels Wins as Hialeah Opens”, New York Times, January 15, 1932
“J.E. Widener Dies; Notes Turfman, 71”, New York Times, October 27, 1943
Images used here are from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Additional photographs of Hialeah at the LOC can be found by searching “Hialeah” in the following database: http://lcweb2.loc.gov/pp/pphome.html.
Of particular interest at the LOC are a series of images of Hialeah by photographer Marion Post Wolcott taken while she was under the employ of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in 1938. Considering Wolcott’s interest in using photography to demonstrate the American class system, it is likely that she took the images of Hialeah with a less then an ideal view of the activity at the Miami track. Whatever her original intent, they provide racing historians with invaluable documentation.
View more Marion Post Wolcott images of Hialaeh at the Library of Congress (Viewing tip: Move between image groups to see all of the photographs of Hialeah available online)
Read more about Marion Post Wolcott
Thanks for reading and good luck!