05/20/2001 11:00PM

Farewell, my lovely

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HIALEAH, Fla. - Hialeah Park, which has played host to the greats of Thoroughbred racing for more than three-quarters of a century, appears destined to close its doors forever following the conclusion of the 2001 meeting Tuesday.

Hialeah's last realistic chance at survival ended on May 4, when the Florida Legislature adjourned its 2001 session without extending the statute that regulates racing dates. The law expires on June 30.

Gulfstream Park, which is owned by Magna Entertainment, and Calder Race Course, owned by Churchill Downs Inc., wasted little time taking advantage of deregulation, applying for meetings in 2002 that would leave Hialeah only a single day to race unopposed by one of its two rivals in the Miami area.

Gulfstream and Calder have waged bitter battles with Hialeah and its chairman, John J. Brunetti Sr., for nearly two decades over the allocation of dates. Despite the setback in the legislature, Brunetti, who purchased Hialeah Park in 1977 for about $20 million, does not plan to go down without a fight.

"I think the fact we came as close as we did to extending the statute was a remarkable accomplishment," said Brunetti. "Since the session adjourned, we've had a half-dozen legislators tell us they didn't realize the effect of closing Hialeah would be so dramatic. I think even the governor [Jeb Bush] is starting to realize what a loss it would be. So we're going to try again when the legislature reconvenes in January, this time proposing a clean bill, not an amendment, that would call for the equal distribution of racing dates in the state."

Should his last-ditch effort in January fail, Brunetti said he will not make any further attempts to save the track.

"I've been besieged by too many people who care about racing at Hialeah, and I'm willing to go to the last possible step to keep Hialeah the treasure that it is," said Brunetti. "But if nothing happens in the next session, it's over."

Brunetti said he remains undecided about whether he will open his barn area next year. Hialeah housed more than 1,000 horses last winter, including such stars as A P Valentine, Albert the Great, and Kentucky Derby runner-up Invisible Ink. More than 1,000 starters during the Gulfstream Park meet were stabled at Hialeah. If those stalls are not available next season, many people speculate that it will affect the 2002 Gulfstream meet, which is scheduled to run an additional six weeks, through April 24. Gulfstream officials say they are unconcerned.

"We are proceeding under the premise that Hialeah's barn area will not be available next winter," said Gulfstream Park's general manger, Scott Savin. "We will judiciously allocate the stall space at Gulfstream and make horsemen realize they must bring horses down to run and not lay up for the winter. And along with stalls available at Calder and other local facilities, we should not have a problem filling races."

Brunetti said that if he can no longer operate a race meet at Hialeah, he will develop the property either through his own company or by selling off part of the land to outside interests.

"We've had numerous inquiries about the property," said Brunetti, who declined to identify the interested parties. "We are also developing our own plan, which would include housing, a retail office building, and a distribution center along the railroad line that borders the land."

Brunetti said he would leave the clubhouse intact for use as offices and intended to keep a portion of the infield lake, which has been designated as a sanctuary by the National Audubon Society for Hialeah's legendary flamingos.

Ever since it opened on Jan. 25, 1925, Hialeah has been one of the country's most beloved racetracks. Known as the Grande Dame of racing, it was the winter home to the best horses in the world. Its roster of champions reads like a who's who of racing legends that includes Citation, Nashua, Needles, Bold Ruler, Tim Tam, Carry Back, Buckpasser, Gallant Man, Northern Dancer, Seattle Slew, Foolish Pleasure, Honest Pleasure, Alydar, John Henry, Spectacular Bid, and many others.

The Flamingo Stakes, once regarded as perhaps the most important prep race on the Kentucky Derby trail, has produced no fewer than 13 Derby and 43 Triple Crown race winners, including Citation and Seattle Slew, who swept the Triple Crown in 1948 and 1977, respectively. This year's Flamingo winner, Thunder Blitz, finished fourth in the Derby.

Among the great trainers who spent their winters at Hialeah were Calumet's H.A. "Jimmy" Jones, a seven-time Hialeah training champion, and his father, Ben Jones, who won the title three years in succession from 1937 to 1939. Eddie Arcaro, Johnny Longden, and Bill Hartack are just a few of the Hall of Fame jockeys who captured Hialeah riding titles.

Hialeah history

Jan. 25, 1925 - Hialeah Park opens

Jan. 1, 1931 - Joseph E. Widener assumes control of the track. Parimutuel wagering is legalized in Florida.

Jan. 10, 1937 - The first Flamingos hatched in captivity take up residence at Hialeah. They go on to become one of the track's signatures, and their habitat is currently designated as a sanctuary by the National Audubon Society.

March 5, 1938 - War Admiral carries

130 pounds to a wire-to-wire victory in the third running of the Widener Handicap. Despite his impost, he goes off as the 1-5 favorite.

Feb. 28, 1948 - Citation wins the Flamingo Stakes by six lengths, a stepping-stone to the Triple Crown.

Jan. 1, 1954 - A second clubhouse, designed in the same French Mediterranean flavor as the original, opens.

Feb. 26, 1955 - Nashua, trained by Hall of Famer Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, defeats Saratoga to win the Flamingo with Eddie Arcaro aboard.

Feb. 18, 1956 - A record crowd of 42,366 watches Nashua win the Widener Handicap.

March 3, 1964 - Northern Dancer and Bill Shoemaker prove popular winners of the Flamingo for trainer Horatio Luro.

Jan. 10, 1965 - The Citation statue, two years in the making by Italian sculptor Thomas Famiglietti, is unveiled in the center of the lily pond on the clubhouse side of the paddock.

Feb. 28, 1968 - Angel Cordero Jr. becomes the first jockey in track history to win six races on a single program, a record that would be matched 21 years later by Craig Perret.

Feb. 7, 1969 - Diane Crump becomes the first female rider to accept a mount at a major racetrack in the U.S.

Jan. 1, 1972 - A syndicate led by John W. Galbreath, purchases the track from Eugene Mori, who owned Hialeah for the previous 18 seasons.

Feb. 15, 1975 - Forego carries 131 pounds to his second straight victory in the Widener Handicap en route to Horse of the Year honors. He won the race the previous winter under 129 pounds.

Jan. 1, 1977 - John J. Brunetti Sr. purchases Hialeah Park from the Galbreath syndicate for approximately $20 million and assumes leadership of the track as president and chairman.

March 26, 1977 - Seattle Slew keeps his record perfect with an easy victory as the 1-5 favorite in the Flamingo. Less than three months later, he wins the Triple Crown.

March 24, 1979 - Spectacular Bid scores the most lopsided victory in the Flamingo Stakes, winning by 12 lengths at odds of 1-20. He goes on to win the Kentucky Derby and Preakness but fails to win the Triple Crown in the Belmont Stakes.

Feb. 23, 1980 - The venerable John Henry wins the Hialeah Turf Cup, one of eight stakes races the popular gelding captures to earn Horse of the Year honors.

Feb. 27, 1982 - Mary Russ becomes the first female rider to win a Grade 1 race when she guides Lord Darnley to victory in the Widener Handicap.

Winter, 1990 - No racing at Hialeah due to dates conflict with Calder.

March 17, 2000 - Hialeah opens its meet for the first time at Gulfstream Park., where it runs its dates under an agreement with Magna Entertainment.

May 4, 2001 - Florida legislature adjourns without extending the statute regulating racing dates.