02/03/2010 12:00AM

The old girl hasn't lost her looks

Barbara D. Livingston
Greats like Citation used to race at Hialeah. Now it's Quarter Horses.

HIALEAH, Fla. - People who remember the glory days of Hialeah Park surely feel a sense of trepidation as they walk into the racetrack this winter. Out of business since 2001, Hialeah reopened in November as a Quarter Horse track. Instead of being a showcase for the greatest Thoroughbreds in the United States, Hialeah offers dashes for cheap horses that are known for their sprinting ability but that generate little interest and minuscule betting totals. A visitor might feel the way he would if he was about to meet an old flame after decades have passed. Are all of your beautiful memories about to be tarnished?

Yet when you step inside Hialeah's storied clubhouse, you can immediately see and remember why this was once the greatest racetrack on Earth. Owner John Brunetti Sr. spent some $8 million refurbishing the facilities for this Quarter Horse meeting, and the clubhouse is spic and span. It is an elegant building with grand staircases that give the place the atmosphere of a palace rather than a parimutuel facility. It is decorated with the silks of C.V. Whitney, George D. Widener, the Greentree Stable and the other patricians who campaigned their horses here every winter.

The landscaping is still exceptional, with a row of Australian pines lining the perimeter of the paddock area and royal palms flanking the entrance to the track - though their numbers were thinned by Hurricane Wilma in 2005. Hialeah's famous flamingos are still in residence; a colony of 350 pink birds resides in the infield, now a designated National Audubon sanctuary. The huge walking ring - fashioned after the one at Longchamp in Paris - and the grounds surrounding it are magnificent. Fans can spend the day sitting in lawn chairs or at tables around the walking ring, enjoying the Florida sunshine. For most of its history, this pristine place has been caught up in the rough-and-tumble of Florida politics and fights over gambling legislation. Now the same forces will shape Hialeah's future - if it has one.

For years, Hialeah and Gulfstream Park battled over possession of the prime January-to-March racing dates at the height of the tourist season, with the loser getting the less lucrative March-to-May period and Calder Race Course operating the rest of the year. Hialeah lost its longtime hold on prime time because the inelegant location of the track and the demographics of its neighborhood made it a less profitable operation than Gulfstream. Brunetti, who bought the track in 1977, was totally consumed by the fighting over racing dates and ultimately overplayed a bad hand. He rejected an offer from Gulfstream that would have given him a short, annual high-quality race meeting, one that would have made Hialeah the "Saratoga of the South." Hialeah was ultimately doomed when Florida "deregulated" racing - meaning that dates were no longer assigned by the state; tracks could choose their own dates and forge agreements with one another. Gulfstream and Calder squeezed Hialeah out of the racing calendar, and Hialeah ran its last Thoroughbred race on May 22, 2001.

In the subsequent years, however, the nature of gambling changed in Florida. Indian casinos thrived, and the state gave a boost to its faltering parimutuel industry by allowing it to operate slot machines and poker rooms. Any kind of parimutuel license could be parlayed into a potentially profitable gambling operation. Quarter Horse racing is legal under Florida law, though the sport hadn't been conducted in the state for nearly two decades. When Quarter Horse interests approached Brunetti, he saw a way to get back into the game. If Hialeah ran one race meeting, it would be eligible to run a card room, though it would need special legislation to get slots. Just what Brunetti loves: a political fight!

After Hialeah obtained its Quarter Horse permit, its new general manager, Randy Soth, remembered his first visit: "You looked across the track and you could hear the flamingos but you couldn't see them because of the overgrowth of vegetation. There were trees growing in the middle of the turf course. There were gaping holes in the roof. You could still tell that the old girl was there, but she was going to need a lot of cleaning up."

The clean-up was successful, and Hialeah's reopening revealed a wellspring of affection for the track. A remarkable crowd of 27,000 showed up on opening day, but they were gawking and not wagering. Betting totals have been dismal. On Tuesday, the next-to-last of the season, ontrack betting was a pitiful $38,450 and simulcast wagers brought the grand total to $153,597.

"The operating losses running Quarter Horses have been frightening," Brunetti acknowledged. "Our long-term goal is to have the whole megillah: Thoroughbred racing, a card room and a casino." But he insisted that this was not just a play for slot machines, which he views as a business that has peaked. "I think," he said, "that there is a niche for Hialeah with its great facilities and traditions."

It won't be easy for Brunetti to forge an agreement with the state and with other racetracks that would make possible a profitable new life for Hialeah. But at least one element has changed in the racing landscape since Hialeah was shut down. The abrasive Brunetti used to be the object of widespread antipathy within the Thoroughbred industry, and plenty of people said "Good riddance!" when Gulfstream permanently supplanted Hialeah as south Florida's principal track.

Gulfstream was then a beloved track, too - it was Hialeah without the grandeur and the flamingos. But when its chairman, Frank Stronach, decided to rebuild it, he demolished its beautiful outdoor paddock, removed almost every bit of greenery, surrounded the track with a shopping center, and turned it into a soulless place where most people watch the races from glass-enclosed dining rooms or a windowless simulcast room.

That's why visitors look so longingly at Hialeah's grandeur and open spaces and dream that, somehow, Thoroughbred racing could look like this again.

The Washington Post