Thursday, 19 March 2020 13:23

The South Florida Road to Louisville: The Flamingo Stakes

By Joseph Raucci | Winner's Circle

The South Florida road to Louisville has produced its share of Kentucky Derby winners. For decades, until its demise nearly two decades ago, Hialeah Park led the way.

Let’s look at fabulous Hialeah, the Flamingo Stakes, and its nine Kentucky Derby winners. During the 1920s, South Florida with its warm weather and inviting beaches, was rapidly becoming the vacation capital of the East Coast. Northerners looking for a brief respite from the winter chill flocked to the Sunshine State. The swells also found paradise there, building luxurious homes all along the Gold Coast.

It was the perfect timing to bring quality horse racing to the Miami area. Joseph Widener, a major player on the horse racing scene, decided to build a world class racing venue there. The architecture would be of a Mediterranean style. Royal palm trees added to the splendor. Beautiful pink flamingos were imported from Cuba to inhabit the racetrack’s infield lake. The entire grounds were the epitome of class.

Widener understood major stakes races would draw the best horses in training to his track. He settled on two events.

Older horses would be featured in the Widener Handicap. For the 3-year old Kentucky Derby hopefuls, the Flamingo Stakes made its debut in 1937. Kentucky Derby winners would rain on the Flamingo for the next 42 years.

In 1938 trainer Ben Jones took the second running of the Flamingo with a colt named Lawrin. He became the first winner of the race to win the Kentucky Derby. Jones success in the Run for the Roses was far from finished. He would win five more as the conditioner for Calumet Farms, America’s storied breeding farm of champions.

For the 1948 version, Calumet’s wonder horse Citation arrived at Hialeah. He breezed in the Flamingo on his way to the Triple Crown.

The Calumet standard bearer became only the eighth horse to win the coveted series. To commemorate his Flamingo victory, a life sized bronze statue of Citation was incorporated into Hialeah’s paddock area. Citation, a racehorse for the ages.

The ‘50s and ‘60s can be considered the heyday of Hialeah Park. The greatest names associated with “The Sport of Kings” came together at the Winter Palace of their chosen sport. The Vanderbilt’s, Whitney’s, Wideners, and the Phippses savored the beautiful grounds that were Hialeah. The trainers of the top stables readied their stock for the 40 day meet. Eddie Neloy, the father and son team of Moody and LeRoy Jolley, Horatio Luro and “The Sage of Sheepshead Bay,” (“Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons) were among them. Many of the premier jockeys in the country were eager to compete at Hialeah. Eddie Arcaro, Bill Hartack, Angel Cordero Jr. and many other future Hall of Fame inductees vied for a trip to the track’s winner circle.

Racing fans and sightseers longed to be a part of the action. Celebrities also found the track to their liking. Winston Churchill, Harry Truman, Bob Hope and Joe Kennedy were among those who made visits to the track.

On February 18, 1956 a record crowd of 42,366 converged on Hialeah to witness the great Nashua, take the Widener Handicap and become just the second thoroughbred to win a million dollars in purse money.

The 1950’s brought two more superb horses to the Flamingo and a trip to the Hialeah winner’s circle. Needles took the 1956 version. He became first Florida- bred to take the Kentucky Derby. Needles went on to win the Belmont Stakes. He was piloted by the recently deceased Dave Erb, a longtime Saratoga area resident and race rider par excellence.

Two years later it was Calumet for the third time with Tim Tam. He scored in the Flamingo, then won the Derby and followed it up with a tally in the second jewel of the Triple Crown. He entered the gate as a huge favorite to win the Belmont Stakes and join the Immortals. As fate would have it he fractured a bone in one of his front legs during the stretch run. He had the ferocity to hang on for second. Tim Tam’s short, but brilliant racing career was over.

In 1961 Carry Back took the Flamingo, charging out of nowhere to win the race. He went on to win the Derby and Preakness with his patented late move. Hugely popular, he thrilled racing fans throughout his long and storied career.

Then came 1964 and a Canadian- owned entry with the apropos name of Northern Dancer. The trio of E.P. Taylor, Canada’s leading owner, the dapper Argentinian trainer Horatio Luro and the superb riding skills of Bill Hartack added to the mystique of The Dancer. He took the Flamingo on his way to victory in the Derby and Preakness Stakes. Northern Dancer went on to become one of the premier sires in the long annals of the sport.

The ‘70s would see the last of the Flamingo winners to take the Kentucky Derby: In 1975, LeRoy Jolley brought the talented Foolish Pleasure to contest the Flamingo. The bay colt did not disappoint. He took the race and followed it with an easy Derby score. Two months later Foolish Pleasure met the brilliant filly Ruffian in a winner take all match race at Belmont Park. The two gladiators were stride for stride down the backstretch when disaster struck.

Ruffian took a bad step, shattering bones in her right front leg. The great champion was put down after a valiant effort to save her life. Foolish Pleasure went onto have a stellar career culminating with a well-deserved induction into Horse Racing’s Hall of Fame.

Two years later it was the year of Seattle Slew. Tommy Roberts was at that time VP and GM of the track. Slew needed a tightener before his connections would agree to enter him in the big race. Roberts sought to convince enough trainers to fill the Flamingo prep. This was no easy task. No trainer in his right mind wanted any part of Slew. With some arm twisting Roberts was able to gather a decent sized field. The competition was no match for the unbeaten colt. Slew decimated the competition in a blistering time of 1:20 3/5 for the seven furlongs and a track record for the distance. He easily took the Flamingo next time out and went on to become America’s tenth, and first unbeaten Triple Crown winner. Seattle Slew, one of the great champions.

The year 1979 would see the last of the Flamingo winners that went on to take the Kentucky Derby. A dark gray colt named Spectacular Bid won the race with ease on his way to what looked to be the third Triple Crown Champion in succession. Unfortunately, Bid stepped on a safety pin the night before the Belmont Stakes. Add to that a poor ride from his bewildered jockey Ronnie Franklin, and the dream turned into a nightmare. Bid was a tiring third in the grueling mile and a half marathon. Spectacular Bid went on to a fabulous career.

How good was he? There were no takers when he ran in his last race, the 1980 Woodward Stakes. The gray was breezed around the Belmont Park oval uncontested in a rare walkover.

Hialeah’s glory days were rapidly ending. Shifts in the population centers and the shuffling of racing dates to accommodate Gulfstream Park’s surging business and better location were important factors in the decline of the once mighty Hialeah.

“All good things must come to an end.” The last running of the Flamingo Stakes took place on April 8, 2001. On May 22 of that year Hialeah ran its last thoroughbred horse race.

Next week we will look at Gulfstream Park and one of todays most important Kentucky Derby prep races, the Florida Derby.

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