Sports Outside the Beltway

Can or should Hialeah Park be saved?

The old and closed Florida Race Track could be torn down to be replaced by homes and stores.

It was once known as “the world’s most beautiful race course.”

Now only slivers of that beauty peek through the fences and locked gates of the privately owned Hialeah Park. And the talk about town is that it could turn into a sprawling development of homes and stores.

Enter Alex Fuentes, 29, a Hialeah resident who wants to preserve the park and a piece of local history.

”This is where Seabiscuit first raced, this is where world leaders would come on the weekends, this is what put Hialeah on the map,” said Fuentes, founder of Citizens to Save Hialeah Park. “This is something everyone should be fighting to preserve. Saving Hialeah Park is not just a Hialeah issue.”

In a sign of solidarity with the 250 signature pink flamingoes still housed behind the park’s locked gates, the group will don pink shirts and protest in front of the East 32nd Street entrance, beginning at 2 p.m. today.

But time is running out for Fuentes, his followers and the famed park.

The Hialeah Park Race Track first opened its doors on Jan. 15, 1925. Through those door walked the likes of Winston Churchill and Joe Kennedy. Socialites and dignitaries rode special trains from Palm Beach to spend the afternoon among the royal palms and towering Australian pine trees.

It was where famed racehorses like Seabiscuit, Seattle Slew and Citation displayed their prowess before making it big at the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness.

By the end of 1979, the racetrack landed on the National Register of Historic Places.

But as interest waned for horse racing in the 1990s, and competition for games dates increased with Calder and Gulfstream race tracks, the park drew fewer visitors. By May 22, 2001, Cheeky Mist would be the final horse to win a race at the park.

Though the park remained open for visitors and for wedding receptions, its doors were shut to the public last December after failed attempts by owner John Brunetti to regain the racing license removed by the state Legislature in 2003.

Last January, Brunetti, submitted to the South Florida Regional Planning Commission a proposal to construct 3,760 condominiums, and almost one million square feet of commercial shopping space. The commission raised questions about the project’s density and asked for changes.

Meanwhile, the park’s past was fading fast. In November, the Hialeah City Council swiftly approved a measure declassifying the historic designation of the horse stables. In January, a bulldozer tore them down.

Hialeah Mayor Julio Robaina called the stables, which had suffered damage from Hurricane Wilma, an eyesore that was causing a rodent problem for neighboring businesses.

The final clincher for Fuentes’ group in came in February when the City Council approved a measure calling for the creation of five ”new business development districts” throughout the city. Two of the proposed development areas, with buildings of three to seven stories, would be located on Palm Avenue and East Fourth Avenue — land that runs parallel to the park.

I’m an old fan of horse racing, but the sport is dying because of competition from other forms of gambling. Racetracks have closed all over the country, Brandywine Raceway where I spent alot of time when I was young, and Roosevelt Raceway less than an hour from where I lived on Long Island are just two examples.

The horse stables are gone and would be needed to re-start racing, but the economics are bad for racing. Who is going to re-start racing there. And while Hialeah was a part of South Florida’s early history, who will take tours of an old racetrack? I’m not going to and as I have said I been around horse racing when young and still follow the sport. It is time to say goodbye to Hialeah Park and remember what it used to be.

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