06/18/2009 12:00AM

Bill advances Hialeah's possible reopening


Legislation granting Hialeah Park in Hialeah, Fla., the right to hold live races and operate slot machines may pave the way to the track reopening for a brief Quarter Horse meet in December if the state can also reach an agreement with the Seminole tribe on a gambling compact.

The legislation, signed by Gov. Charlie Crist on Monday, would allow Hialeah Park to open a poker room immediately, and it would also grant Hialeah the right to operate slot machines after two years of live racing. The slot-machine license, however, hinges on an agreement between the state and the Seminoles that would allow the tribe to expand the gambling operations at its casinos in south Florida. The Seminoles, so far, are balking at that agreement.

Hialeah Park, which opened in 1925 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, has been closed since 2001, when track owner John Brunetti decided the track could not compete with Gulfstream Park in Hallandale and Calder Race Course in Miami. The track was once one of the most popular horse racing destinations on the East Coast, but its condition and its surrounding neighborhood began deteriorating in the 1990s.

Even if the gambling compact is approved by the Seminoles, Hialeah Park is unlikely to return to anywhere near its former role. The legislation requires Hialeah to run a mere 20 races in its first year of operation. The grandstand and dirt racing surface need extensive work to repair years of neglect, and if the track holds a Quarter Horse meet either late this year or early in 2010, the track would restrict attendees to temporary tents.

Before the legislation passed, Brunetti said that he would raise $100 million from private investors to fund the reconstruction of the grandstand and clubhouse, a new stable area, and a casino. Brunetti also said that he planned to seek Thoroughbred racing dates in the future, but only if the legislature passed a bill guaranteeing Hialeah the dates it was seeking. That legislation has not passed.

Last week, Brunetti, his son John Jr., Hialeah track manager Dennis Testa, and former Hialeah state representative Luis Rojas visited Remington Park in Oklahoma, a track that runs both Quarter Horse and Thoroughbred races and also has slot machines. In a release, Brunetti reiterated that he wanted to hold Thoroughbred races, but said, "We will start with Quarter Horse racing."

Brunetti did not respond to phone calls on Thursday.

Under the bill that Crist signed Monday, racetracks that hold Quarter Horse racing permits can also hold a limited number of Thoroughbred races.

Brunetti has announced grand plans for Hialeah reopening in the past, but he has always insisted on help from the legislature, either through the right to operate casino-type games or guarantees of dates. With the promise of a slot-machine license on the horizon, Brunetti had contended that the Breeders' Cup could be held at a reopened Hialeah Park.

The right to operate slot machines at Hialeah will disappear if Crist and the Seminoles do not agree on the compact that would require the tribe to pay $150 million a year out of their seven casino operations in south Florida. The tribe has said that the agreement does not protect the Seminoles in the event that the legislature expands gambling yet again in the state, and as of early June, attorneys for the tribe were saying that they would not sign the agreement. Negotiations have to be concluded by Aug. 31.

If the negotiations aren't successful, then Hialeah will lose its opportunity for slots.