By: Ron Hale
Tropical Park is one of the more uncelebrated race tracks of the 20th Century, but it has an interesting history. In fact, the first legal horse race in Dade County, Florida was run at Tropical Park at 2:32 p.m., December 26, 1931
Wait, you say, beautiful Hialeah opened its doors in Dade County in 1925. True, but betting on Thoroughbreds was not legal in Florida until 1931. How were lavish tracks like Hialeah able to operate prior to that time? County officials would receive kick backs from racetrack operators like Joseph Widener, who built Hialeah. Local police would then be ordered to leave the tracks alone. Basically, everyone other than the churches liked the idea. Tracks like Hialeah brought lots of money to the area and lots of tourists from the colder states in the north. The governor and legislators in Tallahassee turned their heads in the other direction. The basic philosophy of the state was that enforcement of betting laws was a local issue. To keep legilators thinking like this, men like Widener were frequently seen headed for the state capital with large suitcases -- and they weren't filled with oranges.
Florida finally got around to making betting on Thoroughbreds legal in 1931. Beating Joseph Widener and Hialeah to the punch on conduting the first legal horse race in Dade County were Bill Dwyer and Frank Bruen. They bought and rebuilt -- in an incredible eight weeks -- a dog track (South Miami Kennel Club) into a Thoroughbred track. They named it Tropical Park (Daily Racing Form designation: TrP). Located just off Bird Road in what is now Coral Gables (about six miles south of Miami International Airport), Tropical Park would for several years in the 1930s battle Hialeah for the coveted January-February racing dates, before losing out. (This battle still rages 66 years later--with Hialeah, Gulfstream and Calder.)
Tropical continued to operate a season prior to the opening of Hialeah until the early 1970s, when battles with the upstart Calder Race Course finally forced it out of business. Tropical Park, Inc. closed its track and shifted its dates to Calder Race Course, where the Tropical at Calder meeting is still conducted today. Following World War II until its demise, Tropical had basically settled into a 48-day season that ran from the third week of November until the opening of Hialeah the second week of January.
For most involved in racing for a long time, Tropical Park will always be remembered for one thing -- the introduction of the first synthetic racing surface in America for Thoroughbreds. Built inside the regular dirt track, the rubberized surface (called "Tartan turf") was developed by Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Co. (3M)--the Scotch tape folks. It was basically the same surface used for football fields and baseball diamonds, and at least three harness tracks.
During the 1966-67 season, one race a day was conducted on the surface -- fields being limited primarily to the lowest-priced claimers. About three-quarters of the trainers and half the leading jockeys at Tropical refused to participate, fearing possible damage to horses and injuries to riders from the "jarring" surface. In following seasons, a layer of sand was added to soften the rubberized surface, but it continued to receive criticism and never really caught on with horsemen.
© 1997, Ron Hale