Jan 3rd 2009 05:15 am |
Gulfstream Park opens today celebrating its 70th anniversary. The track in Hallandale, Florida north of Miami opened for business in 1939 but closed after four racing days and stood empty before re-opening for good in 1944.
Image: Advertisement for Gulfstream Park, 1957 (The American Racing Manual)
The right to race at Gulfstream required a court fight that went all the way to the Florida Supreme Court. The Florida Racing Commission didn’t think it prudent to run two tracks simultaneously and denied the new track dates on the state’s racing calendar. The decision was appealed and the supreme court overruled the commission.
Following the court’s decision, Gulfstream opened for its inaugural meet on February 1, 1939. As reported by Time Magazine, nearly 15,000 attended opening day but “the rest of the week, while the stables were filled to capacity, a comparative handful of customers rattled around in Gulfstream’s big steel grand stand.” The scheduled forty day meet lasted four. With 1.4 million invested by lead financier Jack Hornung – a Pittsburgh steel heir – the track flopped and would go dark for almost five years.
Gulfstream could have become nothing more than a blip on racing’s historical time line if not for a Scottish-born florist and landscape designer who made his fortune in the Florida real estate boom of the 1920s. James Donn Sr. developed a love for racing after receiving the commissions to landscape Tropical Park and Hialeah. A group headed by Donn, one of the many owed money from the 1939 failure, re-opened Gulfstream Park on March 1, 1944.
The New York Times, reported the day before its opening:
President James Donn looked up at a cloudless sky today, noted a nip in the air and increased to 25,000 or more his estimate of the number of spectators who will be on hand tomorrow when horse racing returns to the long-idle Gulfstream Park marking the start of the Florida turf season.
“Donn, head of a syndicate which revived Gulfstream to take advantage of the wartime racing boom, said, that in view of the largest early influx of winter visitors to Miami, the twenty-day meeting should be a success all the way.
“Seventeen were named for the $2,500 Inaugural Handicap, and the six-furlong race was split into two sections….
“…Gulfstream was completed just in time to open Feb. 1, 1939. Financial difficulties developed and the track was closed after four days. For five years creditors fought over claims in bankruptcy court. Donn and his associates bought most of the claims, and got permission from the court only last summer to reopen the track.”
In a profile of James Donn. Sr. and his son published in 1962, Who’s Who in Thoroughbred Racing had this:
Donn purchased the defunct Gulfstream Park, which, burdened with troubles from its inception, lasted only [four] days. Only a guy with the greatest intestinal fortitude could tackle such a problem, but in 1944, when the present regime opened its first meeting, the transformation from a near derelict to a scene of beauty was beyond belief. Today Gulfstream Park is one of the most beautiful and well organized racecourses in America.”
James Donn Jr., who would lead Gulfstream after the death of his father, said, “Operation of a race-course should not only be a business in itself, but a part of the community enterprise.” A wonderful sentiment but one foreign to many of today’s track operators.
James Donn Sr., was followed by his son and grandson (Douglas Donn) as President of Gulfstream Park. The Donn Handicap, named to honor the patriarch of the racing dynasty, has been a mainstay on Florida’s winter race schedule since its inaugural run in 1959.
SOURCES, NOTES, AND OBSERVATIONS
“Gulfstream Park Ready for Racing”, New York Times, January, 30 1939
“Racing Starts Today at Gulfstream Park”, New York Times, December 1, 1944
“James Donn, Sr. and Jr.” from Who’s Who in Throughbred Racing, Volume III, 1962
“Gulfstream Park”, Time, Feb. 13, 1939
Steve Crist’s prescient 1989 article about Florida Racing
Thanks for Reading and Good Luck