05/21/2001 11:00PM

Meeting and an era come to a close

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MIAMI - The track bugler played taps as the field left the paddock for the 10th and final race on Tuesday's program at Hialeah, signifying not only the end of the 2001 meeting but perhaps the last race ever to be run at the historic oval. Barring a miracle in the state legislature next winter, Hialeah will not reopen again. Its final death knell will be sounded when the current bill regulating racing dates in Florida expires on June 30.

Track officials are calling the 2001 meet "the most successful in track history," citing ontrack and overall total handle figures that were up about 20 percent over the last meet run at Hialeah, in 1999. Hialeah raced its dates at Gulfstream Park in 2000.

Total handle for the 63-day session was more than $262 million, up from $222 million two years ago. Ontrack and inter-track wagering handle was $59 million in 2001, compared with $52 million in 1999. The track did not release final attendance figures on Tuesday. Among the stars to race at Hialeah this year were A P Valentine, Albert the Great, and Eclipse Award winner Perfect Sting.

"I want to thank the owners, trainers, breeders, and especially the public who helped make this season such a smashing success," said John Brunetti Sr., Hialeah's chairman, who has operated the track since purchasing it for approximately $20 million in 1977.

When asked about the future, Brunetti said, "it's not over yet." The closing-day feature, the $52,400 Hialeah Juvenile, was won by Tabac, a maiden entering the contest, who rallied to a convincing three-length victory under jockey Angel Castillo. Barnacle Steve finished second, with Cherokee Road third.

The winner paid $6.80 and ran the five furlongs in 59.71 over a fast track.