They mercilessly booed the horses, owners, trainers, and jockeys for the better part of half an hour. Even Bing Crosby, on hand to present the winning trophy, was not immune to the vitriol of the disgruntled 30,011 in attendance on a gorgeous, 80-degree Thursday afternoon.
“Bob Hope must have hired this mob,” Crosby was reported to have cracked.
This was the scene 50 years ago today at Hialeah Park when it played host to its traditional closing-day feature, the Flamingo Stakes. At the time, the Flamingo was the first major Kentucky Derby prep of the year on the East Coast.
The crowd’s bête noire was not necessarily the race participants, per se, but Hialeah owner Gene Mori. Stung throughout the 40-day meet by minus pools that had cut into track profits, and fearing another in the Flamingo even with win-only betting, Mori sought and received permission from the Florida State Racing Commission to run Hialeah’s signature race as a betless exhibition.
The cause of Mori’s consternation was the reappearance of the Ogden Phipps/Wheatley Stable entry of Buckpasser and Stupendous, who had run one-two at odds of 2-5 in the Everglades Stakes just eight days before. Even with six other betting interests in the Everglades and no show wagering offered, the duo’s performance created a minus place pool of more than $20,000.
“The decision was made reluctantly, but we might lose between $50,000 and $100,000 if we permitted betting,” Gene Mori Jr., son of the track owner, told Sports Illustrated the day before the race.
Hialeah management had not been reluctant at all about canceling pools in other major races during its 1966 meet. Although Graustark cost the track nearly $11,000 in the place pool winning the Bahamas Stakes on Feb. 2, a race that had six other betting interests, management’s attitude toward minus pools could be short-sighted. Three days after the Bahamas, reigning Horse of the Year Roman Brother ran fourth at odds of 1-2 in the Seminole Handicap, a race with nine betting interests but with no show wagering offered.
A 10th betting race was carded on closing day, with the Flamingo held between the seventh and eighth races. Legendary columnist Red Smith, on site for the New York Herald Tribune, took no prisoners with his assessment of the situation:
It was a hair-raising show, a heart stopper — and Hialeah’s discriminating clientele booed it to the echo. That was the honest horse player’s altogether fitting salute to the 39th Flamingo Stakes, a race that will live in infamy as the chicken derby…
If Gene Mori, proprietor of this gaudy establishment, had any doubts about the public’s attitude toward a nine-horse race with seven separate betting interests but no mutuels open, they were put at rest immediately after yesterday’s seventh race when [Fred] Capossela announced that the Flamingo horses were entering the paddock. The response shook swallows’ nests out of the rafters, frightened the pink poultry to flight from the infield lake.
From that moment, every step in the sorry farce was met by boos, jeers, catcalls, hoots and whistles…There were hoots as the field appeared on the track, jeers as the colts warmed up, catcalls at they lined up at the gate.
Smith’s description of the race itself, “as good a horse race as America will see this year,” was on the money. Buckpasser, who had previously displayed a tendency to loaf when making the lead too soon, did just that in upper stretch when Stupendous folded earlier than expected. Sporting blinkers, Buckpasser was seemingly oblivious to an explosive, wide move that catapulted Abe’s Hope to the lead at the eighth pole. That Illinois-bred rival opened up a significant margin under Earlie Fires and briefly looked like a sure winner.
“Inside the eighth pole we were two lengths out of it, and we were still one length out with 70 yards to go. I absolutely gave up on him,” Buckpasser’s trainer Eddie Neloy told Sports Illustrated.
However, once Abe’s Hope got within Buckpasser’s line of sight, the regally-bred colt found one more gear for jockey Bill Shoemaker. Under left-handed urging, Buckpasser went into overdrive and, with a few yards to go, nabbed Abe’s Hope with an inside rush that had to be seen to be believed.
Far from placating the crowd, the exhilarating finish further stoked their ire. After all, Mori’s decision to not even allow win wagering was saved from being a complete embarrassment by mere inches.
The winner was booed when Shoemaker rode him back. Ogden Phipps and Eddie Neloy…got it when they walked a red carpet across the track to accept $88,660 of the gross purse of $136,400…
Conspicuously absent from the presentation ceremonies was Gene Mori. He should have been there to receive his proper reward for taking the class out of one of the American turf’s traditional feast days…
The performance by Buckpasser, the previous year’s champion juvenile colt, was initially viewed as a moderate one, at least in comparison to the brilliance shown earlier in the meet by Graustark. Braulio Baeza, the regular rider for both colts, had early on committed to Graustark for the Kentucky Derby and to this day claims he’s the best horse he ever rode.
Unfortunately, neither would ever meet on the track or even make it to the Kentucky Derby. Buckpasser developed a quarter crack following the Flamingo, which knocked him out of all three classics. Graustark suffered a career-ending injury while incurring his only career defeat, to Abe’s Hope, in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, nine days before the Derby.
In their absence, Kauai King won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness but saw his Triple Crown bid foiled in a fourth-place effort in the Belmont Stakes. Buckpasser was back in action by the summer and, with Baeza up, defeated Kauai King with a world-record mile in the Arlington Classic. He finished the season 12-for-12 in stakes company and was an overwhelming choice as Horse of the Year.
In retrospect, the “Chicken Flamingo” proved to be a passing of the baton. Kelso, who had dominated the racing scene for the first half of the decade, ran his 63rd and final race the afternoon before the Flamingo, but exited that fourth-place finish in a six-furlong allowance with a career-ending injury. Buckpasser ultimately proved to be the next superstar horse of the 1960s, winning 25 of 31 starts and division titles all three years he ran.
“Though the race had no class in the office, it had nothing else on the track,” said Smith, summing up the 1966 Flamingo. He later added, “At Hialeah, every prospect pleases and only management is vile.”
(Photo courtesy of Turfotos)