Hialeah Park

Note: Thank you to Hialeah Park & Casino for opening its doors to me and thank you to hialeahlove1925 for the expertise.

The land now known as Hialeah was inhabited by the Tequesta (500 BCE – 1760 CE) and then by the Miccosukee and Seminoles (1750 CE – present day) . The natural landscape of the area was a prairie with a slightly higher elevation than the surrounding Everglades. The land was used for agriculture but also as a meeting place between Seminoles and residents of the City of Miami. The Seminoles would bring their wears for trade by boat to this prairie. The name “Hialeah” itself is thought to be Muskogee in origin, combining “Haiyakpo” (prairie) with “hili” (pretty). A similar Seminole phrase means High Prairie.

The higher and drier landscape of the area was further accentuated with the creation of the Miami River Canal. The dredging of this canal enabled further agriculture and development but also had a disastrous environmental impact. Any large scale destruction of a native system has massive unintended consequences on the water, flora, & fauna of the region, and, by extension, on the local population.

“The City of Hialeah was formed as a speculative enterprise by James H. Bright, a cattleman from Missouri, and Glenn H. Curtiss, the aviation pioneer, in 1921. The land on which the town was to be built was formed by the drainage which resulted from the construction of the Miami River Canal.” NRHP

The town of Hialeah was established in 1921. In 1922, the Miami Kennel Club opened as the first pari-mutuel greyhound track in the US. Hialeah Race Track opened to the public on 15 January 1925. The City of Hialeah was incorporated on 10 September 1925. The surging development of Southeast Florida was reflected in the growth of Hialeah and its world famous racing track.

“When the Hialeah track opened on January 1, 1925, visitors could bet horse races, enjoy an amusement park with roller coaster, visit Chief Willy Willy’s Miccosukee Indian Village and Trading Post, watch jai-alai played at the Hialeah fronton, and end the day by betting at the greyhound track, which had begun night races as a hedge against competition from the horse track. Thus, the Hialeah Park race track offered the most complete recreational complex in South Florida at that time.” NRHP

In addition to these amenities, Hialeah park featured a snake catcher. According to the Hialeah Park Casino website “Because Hialeah was on the edge of the Everglades, it wasn’t unheard of to catch a couple dozen snakes a day near the infield lake. So a snake catcher was hired full time, showing Bright and Curtis left nothing to chance.”

The Great Miami Hurricane of 1926 devastated Hialeah Park. The roller coaster and jai-alai fronton were never to be seen again, as Hialeah Park rebuilt itself as primarily a horse racing facility. The kennel club and Miccosukee Village were done away with. The design of Hialeah Park as we experience it in 2021 is similar to it’s design in 1932.

The 1930 purchase and reconstruction of Hialeah Park by Joseph Widener transformed it into an elite destination for the rich and famous. A special train ran directly from Palm Beach to Hialeah, just for the races.

Although both the grandstand and clubhouse were reconstructed after World War II, they maintain the design from 1932. The race track is original, as laid out in 1925.

Here is original footage from Opening Day at Hialeah Park on 14 January 1932.

In 1934, Widener imported 20 pink flamingos from Cuba. Although the association of pink flamingos with Miami-Dade County seems natural and eternal, the 1934 introduction at Hialeah park is the birth of this image. Through countless pop culture manifestations, including on the opening theme of the hit television show Miami Vice, the pink flamingo has now become synonymous with Miami. As more flamingos were brought to Hialeah, the birds nested on location, which led to its current designation a an Audubon Bird Sanctuary.

Figures of both national and international repute visited Hialeah. In 1946, when Sir Winston Churchill entered the racing grounds he simply expressed one word, “Extraordinary!” Other figures that visited Hialeah include Bing Crosby, Vic Damone, Joe DiMaggio, John Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, Harry Truman. In addition, multiple films including Godfather II and The Champ were filmed at Hialeah Park.

The history of Equestrian Sport at Hialeah is best summarized by Tom Ferry on All About The Race.

“But the biggest celebrities here walked and ran on four legs. As the years rolled by, Hialeah was graced by the presence of Seabiscuit, War Admiral, Forego, John Henry, Spectacular Bid, Seattle Slew, Secretariat and Northern Dancer. While countless horses have walked through the track’s paddock and loaded in its starting gates, one hero has never been forgotten and that is the great Citation. He ran here four times in February of 1948 during his Triple Crown-winning season, winning all four races, including Hialeah’s signature Flamingo Stakes. Citation was immortalized in 1965 with a statue created in Florence, Italy, that stands today on a 5,955 pound marble base in the center of a lily pond in the Hialeah Park paddock.” (http://allabouttherace.com/hialeah-park)

The most significant historical event to occur at Hialeah Race Track was a landmark moment in equality.

New York Times 08 February 1969

On 07 February 1969, 20 years old Diane Crump was the first woman jockey in a pari-mutuel race in the United States. And this happened right here at Hialeah Race Track! Despite facing a hostile crowd and the formal hostitly of male jockeys, who chose to resign from a race instead of riding, Crump persisted and succeeded in smashing this gender barrier. She described the hostile scene of that day in a CNN interview

“The crowd was just swarming all over me. They were crazy, up in arms. . .The hecklers were yelling: ‘Go back to the kitchen and cook dinner.’ That was the mentality at the time. They thought I was going to be the downfall of the whole sport, which is such a medieval thought. I was like: ‘Come on people, this is the 1960s!”

A New York Times article from 08 February 1969 documents the scene and an inspiring, lone call of support.

“Diane was mobbed by reporters, photographers and television cameramen from the moment she left her dressing room in the Hialeah Administration Building. She is a quiet little girl, 20 years old, possessed of remarkable composure and self-confidence.
‘Don’t lose your cool, Diane!’ one woman shouted amid the cheers for the girl.
There were a few catcalls, too.
‘I just ignored them,’ Diane said. “I didn’t really hear them.’ “

Architecturally and artistically, the most original and compelling aspects of Hialeah Park are representations of horse racing culture and flamingos. These are throughout Hialeah Park, but primarily in the Mediterranean Revival Clubhouse. Here are a few examples.

Current owner John J. Burretti’s plans for the future of Hialeah Park are grand. Here are how they are described on the official Hialeah Park & Casino website “Mr. Brunetti’s plan to restore Hialeah’s historic buildings and verdant gardens is well underway. The renovated ballrooms replete with Italian marble floors located on the third floor of the clubhouse were unveiled on December 31, 2013. The popular Fountain Terrace has also had a roof added to it and has been enhanced with a new bar and furnishings. Plans call for making Hialeah Park an entertainment and shopping destination for all of the world. Soon will come a museum exhibiting the history of horse racing in south Florida, the creation of a trendy entertainment district anchored by a resort and spa hotel, office building and shopping center that will include restaurants, banks and other commercial ventures. And this is only the beginning—stay tuned.”

References/External Links

All About the Race

City of Hialeah


Diane Crump

Hialeah Park & Casino

Hialeah Love 1925

National Archives Catalog

New York Times
Special to The New,York Times. “Diane Crump Rides 48-1 Shot in Hialeah Race and Finishes 10th in Field of 12: HER PERFORMANCE TERMED ‘SMOOTH’ but 1 1/8-Mile Distance Tires Her some — Six Jockeys Refuse Mounts in Race.” New York Times (1923-), Feb 08, 1969, pp. 37. ProQuest, https://www.proquest.com/historical-newspapers/diane-crump-rides-48-1-shot-hialeah-race-finishes/docview/118584536/se-2?accountid=10901.

The New Tropic

The Washington Post

Historic Postcards of Hialeah Race Track

John William Bailly  21 September 2021

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