11/26/2009 12:00AM

First step toward track's revival

Barbara D. Livingston
Hialeah Park, with its famed flamingos, will open its doors for the first time since May 2001 on Saturday.

HIALEAH, Fla. - After being grounded for more than eight years, Hialeah Park's famous pink flamingos will once again make their trademark flight above the infield, helping to welcome back the more than 10,000 fans expected to turn out Saturday when the historic track reopens for the first of two consecutive Quarter Horse meetings to run through Feb. 2, 2010.

Hialeah's revival seemed a longshot at best when the track closed its doors at the end of its 2001 racing season. But under the guidance of John Brunetti Sr., who has owned the track since 1977, and with a little help from the Florida legislature, Saturday's reopening is the first step in what Brunetti and the track's legion of loyal supporters hope will be a new era in south Florida racing.

"Opening day will be deja vu, like it's 1977 all over again," said Brunetti. "Just like when we came into Florida racing with great hopes and expectations. Now we're looking to bring Hialeah back or at least close to its former glory."

Saturday's program is the first of a 20-day Quarter Horse meet that will continue through Dec. 29, with racing to be conducted on a Saturday through Tuesday basis. The second meet will open Jan. 2 and run on a similar schedule through Feb. 2. Running two 20-day race meets in consecutive years fulfills a requirement in a bill passed by the Florida legislature earlier this year, and could eventually lead to Hialeah being granted the right to operate slot machines.

"Opening day will be the result and response to so many people who have questioned me over the last five years as to when Hialeah would be coming back," said Brunetti. "The legislators have given us an opportunity to re-establish Hialeah as a member of the local racing community and we'll do everything humanly possible to not only fulfill those expectations but hopefully grow into a presence in the industry while at the same time leading some kind of renaissance for south Florida racing."

Opening day will have history on its side, with the return of Hialeah considered a major story in the Miami area for the past several months. But Brunetti is pulling out all the stops, having also booked two acts with large followings in the local community for a concert to go along with an eight-race Quarter Horse program that features the $25,000 Bienvenido de Nuevo Stakes.

"I'm hoping for a crowd of 10,000 on Saturday and I bet you a Coca-Cola we get it," said Brunetti. "After that, expectations are not terribly high since we really have no constituency for this new activity. What we're doing is taking the steps and doing penance to get to where we ultimately want to be."

Brunetti is also confident the flamingos will do their part to ensure a good show on opening day.

"The flamingos are part of the Brunetti family," he said. "We put them in training six weeks ago and they'll be ready to keep the tradition and fly again on Saturday."