A palm-lined drive that made visitors gasp.
Stables that housed Sea Biscuit and Seattle Slew, Citation and War Admiral.
A track that could "make crippled horses sound."
And an infield island teeming with preening flamingos that earned it the distinction of being an Audubon Bird Sanctuary: all this and more was -- and may be -- Hialeah Park, the world's most beautiful dead and controversial racetrack.
Hialeah reopens Saturday at 1:00 for quarter horse racing after eight years of silence and many more of struggle. Opened in 1925, the Park's heyday was a heyday indeed: site of some of the world's best racing and the place for the rich and famous to see and be seen. But a combination of competition and population shift in the 60's stalled its progress, and later a bizarre fight over racing dates left Hialeah to languish in the formidable shadow of nearby Calder and Gulfstream. Owner John Brunetti threatened to raze the track and install a casino if the state didn't force an agreement that let each track have its own season, but got nowhere.
That's where Hialeah found itself, petering out with slashed purses and third-tier horses. Brunetti -- a controversial figure in racing if there ever was one -- shuttered the track in 2001, spent the last eight years feeding the flamingos and watching decay attack the park, and finally got the break he wanted.
New state legislation will allow Hialeah to install slot machines after two calendar seasons of racing. So Brunetti has brought the Park up to public safety standards, will open not with glamorous thoroughbreds but with quarter horses, and run two seasons back-to-back spanning the New Year. Then, Brunetti says, he'll see what happens: if a gaming pact can be reached with the Seminoles, he says he's prepared to spend $40 million on renovations and $80 million on an adjoining casino (in an appropriate style, of course) to support a sport that can't support itself.
Those with ties to Hialeah's glorious past are mixed in opinion.
"Part of me thinks it's going to be great to have live racing back at Hialeah, but part of me thinks it's beneath her dignity to have quarter horse racing," racing writer Billy Reed said. "Now it won't have the same clientele or atmosphere or respect among the racetracks. And today if you were going to try to duplicate Hialeah -- the crowds, the atmosphere, the excitement -- I don't know if anybody could even afford it. To pull off that kind of opulence in today's economy seems almost impossible."
"The track itself, that surface, was unbelievable," trainer Angel Penna, Jr. said in counterpoint. "I don't know if Brunetti will be able to go back and slowly pick it up again, but if they had thoroughbred racing there, absolutely, I would send horses."
Like it or not, reopening Hialeah with a slate of quarter horses is probably the only way to test the Park's viability, and a casino its only hope of remaining open or thriving.
Brunetti says he expects between 10 and 15 thousand for eight races Saturoday -- and yes, the flamingos will be there, along with a little dust.