11/28/2009 1:00AM

For openers, curious fans pack Hialeah

Coady Photography
Fans line the walking path to the racetrack at Hialeah on Saturday. The card was the track's first since 2001.

HIALEAH, Fla. - John Brunetti Sr. said Saturday's reopening of Hialeah Park felt like it was 1977 all over again. And for one day at least, it really did.

A crowd estimated at upwards of 20,000 people packed the clubhouse, lined the apron four to five deep, and overflowed out back near the paddock where the old Citation statue still stands as a reminder of Hialeah's glory days when the greats of the game filled the grandstand on a regular basis. The majority of the crowd came out not for the eight Quarter Horse races on the first racing program at Hialeah since the spring of 2001 but to welcome back one of the most storied racetracks in the history of the sport.

"It's like walking into a time warp," said trainer Tim Ritvo, who opted to spend his day reliving the past at Hialeah rather than saddle his Ms N Tarsia to victory later that afternoon across town at Calder. "I got chills when I walked into the place and saw the crowd."

"It gave me goose bumps the first day I walked back in here," said former jockey Herb McCauley, who is serving as a racing official at Hialeah. "I'm amazed when I look around and see all these people here today. If you'd seen this place three weeks ago you wouldn't have believed they could have pulled this off. It's a credit to Mr. Brunetti and his whole staff."

The large throng that turned out under clear and unseasonably cool skies even surprised Brunetti himself as he stood out by the valet parking line that stretched as far as the eye can see nearly an hour before first post.

"I told everybody we'd have 10 to 12 thousand here today," said Brunetti, who took over ownership of the track in 1977. "Now I figure we'll have at least 20,000 if not more. Not bad for a beginning. A great first step and beyond our expectations. People have been coming up to me today thanking me for getting this place reopened. I think this shows the demand, the desire, and that there's a need for Hialeah in this marketplace."

Despite long lines not only for parking but at the concession stands as well, the crowd was well mannered while anticipating the afternoon's first race. Many in the packed house had never been to, let alone bet on, a horse race before.

"I bet half of this crowd is first timers," said Brunetti. "I can tell just by the way they stand around and look at this place when they first walk in. They think they are in Disney World. They're not sure what to do or why they're here but they're happy they came. We'll run out of everything, parking spaces, food, programs. And nobody is angry. They waited 30 minutes or more to park and everybody is still happy."

Unfortunately, the wait at the mutuel lines was not nearly as long, except where confusion reigned at some of the self-service machines as a result of the many novice horseplayers in the crowd. The total handle on the opening race, a mere $32,000, gave ample evidence that Quarter Horse racing is not the ultimate answer for the future of Hialeah.

"We're paying our dues by running this Quarter Horse meet," said Brunetti. "Today is wonderful but it will fall off, naturally, once the novelty is gone. But some of these people who are seeing the place for the first time will return. They'll see it as a special place, a destination. This is the home of the Thoroughbreds, the Saratoga of the South, and we're going to do everything we can to bring it back."