Day two of my 48 hour horse racing odyssey in South Florida continued into Sunday morning with no more sleep than I enjoyed the night before. I find that on trips like these, a fair amount of sleep deprivation only heightens the senses to be more susceptible to the fun. That’s my story and I’m sticking with it. After some early morning handicapping and a wobbly shower, (for some reason the floor in the shower of the Ramada felt much like standing on a water bed) Matt and I were off to Gulfstream Park again. This time, though, it was not for the races, but rather in support of one of the most vital aspects of our sport … the fan. Often overlooked, without the fan, there would be no thoroughbred horse racing. So said Nick Zito, as one of the celebrity speakers at the first annual ThoroFan Awards Brunch, and of course I could not agree more with the two-time Kentucky Derby winning trainer. So it was with great pleasure that I was able to present the Third Annual Tim Reynolds Memorial Fan of the Year Award on behalf of Horse Racing Nation to one of the most passionate fans of racing I’ve ever met, Ryan Brady. I stumbled through a short speech highlighting why he was chosen, and then stepped aside as Ryan stole the show. The young man from Ohio’s genuine love for racing bubbled over to the audience, as he emotionally accepted the award. I’m sure I was not the only one pumped up after witnessing his energy. In fact, I’m not sure who was the bigger hit at the awards brunch, Ryan, or the elegant Patrice Wolfson, who received the first ThoroFan award as the owner of racing’s last Triple Crown winner, Affirmed. The lovely Ms. Wolfson was not only a gracious award winner, (she stuck around to give personally autographed Affirmed photos to seemingly everyone that attended, including yours truly) but her great love for her champion was as evident in her words today as it was in the footage shown of Affirmed to begin the event. After visiting with many in attendance at the brunch, I lost the jacket and tie, and we beat it on down the road in the warm Florida sun. For the first time in a lifetime of following the horses, the destination was Hialeah Park. Ask me why, after forty years plus of being a horse racing fanatic, I had never before visited the South Florida mecca, and I have no good answer. Timing perhaps, years of no racing for sure, and no thoroughbreds of late, all factored in, but still, I have no good excuse. After all, I had loved Hialeah from afar since the very first time I saw the pink flamingos and great horses on television.
Granted the surrounding neighborhoods to the grand old track are nothing to write home about, but the long, tree-lined drive up, after entering the front gate, has to be the closest thing American racing has to Augusta National. It quickly changed my outlook from worrying about finding the place through the unfamiliar surroundings into a warm fuzzy, I have arrived feeling. Zipping by the bright pink shuttle, we were early enough to park close to the front gate.
Surreal is one word that can describe my emotions as I stepped into the venerable old facility. Matt was chatting about some free contests Hialeah was running that day, but I was more interested in seeing everything there was to see. A wall dedicated in honor of Woody Stephens was the first stop. We were both amazed at how young and different the legendary trainer looked back in the fifties. The notion of way back when, would become a theme. I quickly realized that I had entered more than just a racetrack turnstile a moment before, but rather a time machine transporting me back to a time long ago.
It’s not just that Hialeah Park is old; it’s more about that it has maintained much of what I imagine what the place must have been like back in the time when Woody was a young trainer collecting wins. It reminded me of something commonplace in so many foreign countries, but is so rare in America. Hialeah has not tried to tear down the old and beautiful in favor of the modern and economically efficient. From top to bottom, I could taste the history of the place. From Citation’s statue, in the middle of a fountain, to a gorgeous walking ring, to a timeless looking dining room on the top floor, Hialeah is unlike any other track I’ve ever visited.
A Cuban sandwich interrupted the touring, and its modest quality really didn’t matter much. The important fact was that I was eating it at Hialeah ... and loving it. More investigation into the building revealed a mixture of what I imagine an old Havana night club to be combined with a racetrack of old. I’ve never been a fan of the cookie-cutter, box-like structures that became so prevalent there for a while. Hialeah has a grandstand that rivals any of the best in America. It’s sizeable and comfortable and close enough to the rail to make all the seats good ones. I would be remiss in not mentioning the renovation going on in the far side of the grandstand in preparation of a casino, but I can only hope that it does not change the eternal feel of the place.
As far as the racing, I can honestly report that Quarter Horse racing is not my cup of tea. The horses are still beautiful, but the mad dash from start to finish lacks that critical strategic element that I love so much. More power to all you fans of this type of racing, but my great wish for Hialeah Park is for it to someday return to the thoroughbreds that made it what it was for so many years. Thoroughbreds on the track and flamingos in the infield now that would bring me back to Hialeah again and again. It’s just that kind of special place. And oh yes, I cannot forget the flamingos. In all honestly they were probably the biggest reason for my fascination with this winter oasis so many years ago, and it’s still true today. Truth is I could spend an entire afternoon at Hialeah with no horses at all, as I just watch the hundreds of strange pink birds make their way around the infield … but I still want the thoroughbreds.