09/26/2001 12:00AM

Doubts about stalls at Hialeah persist

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MIAMI - For each of the past few winters, trainer Todd Pletcher has maintained a barn full of horses at Hialeah, including some of his top stakes runners. But now, with little confidence that Hialeah will open its barn area, Pletcher and many of his colleagues may be left scrambling to make other stabling arrangements for the season.

Hialeah officials decided not conduct a race meet in 2002 because the deregulation of racing dates in Florida, which would put the track in head-to-head competition with live racing from either Gulfstream Park or Calder Race Course. But John Brunetti, Hialeah's chairman, had planned to open the track as a training center, renting stalls at a cost of $2,500 each for the season, which runs from Nov. 1, 2001, through April 30, 2002. That stall fee averages out nearly $3 higher per day than the cost to stable a horse at Payson Park, the training facility that is 100 miles north of the Miami area and whose 503 stalls have all been rented for 2002.

Hialeah's price proved too expensive for many trainers, who have traditionally stabled their horses at Hialeah at no cost. With the response for stall space well below his expectations, Brunetti made a last ditch appeal earlier this week to his fellow south Florida track owners, two horsemen's groups, and the state's two leading sales company for financial assistance. That plea has apparently fallen on deaf ears. Without such financial assistance, Brunetti has said, he could not go forward with his plan to open the barn area this winter.

"I'll wait a bit longer and see how things pan out but I've already got stall applications in at the Fair Grounds and New York, and I'm also considering sending some horses to California," said Pletcher who had nearly 60 horses in training in south Florida, split equally between Gulfstream and Hialeah, last winter.

Pletcher was one of only a handful of trainers who originally said they would agree to rent stalls at $2,500 apiece, passing the cost on to owners who were willing to pay higher prices to have their horses train over a surface generally recognized to be among the finest in the country.

"I think it's only fair they charge something as long as the price was comparable to Payson Park and Palm Beach Downs," said Pletcher. "But I can't wait around too long to find out what they are going to do. I need a guarantee they are going to open 30 days in advance, or I'll have to start making other arrangements. Unfortunately, if Hialeah does not open it will severely hurt both the quantity and quality of horses that will race at Gulfstream this winter."

Derek Ryan and Kathy Mongeon are two of the many trainers who have stabled at Hialeah the past few winters. Neither one could justify passing on the cost of an additional $14 a day to their owners to winter at Hialeah in 2002.

"I had 15 horses at Hialeah last year and I have 30 horses in my barn now," said Ryan. "I can't afford to bring 30 horses down there at $2,500 apiece. I started nearly 50 horses at Gulfstream last winter, but right now my plans are up in the air. I'll probably try to get eight to 10 stalls at Gulfstream and leave the rest up north or else just try to get everything in at Laurel for the winter."

Mongeon agreed with Ryan.

"If it was a few dollars extra, I could handle the cost," said Mongeon." But that's a lot of money to charge for stalls when purses are smaller at Gulfstream than we're racing for now in New Jersey. Either I'll have to cut down on the number of horses I bring to Florida and try to get some stalls at Gulfstream or look to get into New York or Philadelphia this winter."