11/12/2009 1:00AM

Taking flight again at Hialeah

Barbara D. Livingston
Hundreds of pink flamingos still flock to the lake in the infield of Hialeah Park, one of the colorful trademarks of the track since the birds were introduced in 1933.

HIALEAH, Fla. - Ghosts are stirring. Past the sun-bleached awning leading to the clubhouse, past the scratch board that still has the changes from the last day of racing in 2001, past the ceiling fans that are beginning to creak and hum.

There are no clocks, there is no sound. Just echoes of your imagination. Desperados smoke cigars with Churchill. A crowd strains for a glimpse of President Truman. Charlatans mingle with Kennedy and Sinatra.

This place is filled with spirits and cobwebs until you follow a sliver of daylight through a narrow walkway in the clubhouse and look out across Hialeah Park and the pink flamingos.

Hurricanes have robbed her of some palm trees, and time has left the bougainvillea brown and gray. But Hialeah Park remains in vibrant Technicolor. The statue of Citation glistens in the sun. And the racetrack once known as the Queen of the South is getting one last chance to be revived.

For 8 1/2 years, through enough stops and starts to break the heart of her supporters and give her enemies reason to throw another shovel of dirt on her, Hialeah has been hoping for a miracle. On Nov. 28, the track's historic gates open for a 20-day Quarter Horse meet, the first phase of an improbable reclamation project.

"You should have seen this place a few months ago," said Hialeah's owner, John Brunetti. "Everything was peeling. We didn't have a roof. The grass was high. There were bushes and weeds. It was embarrassing. But I walked through [the other day], and I got a pleasant feeling."

For Brunetti, the Quarter Horses are a means to an end. "It's a little overkill," he said, "but everything has a price, and you have to walk before you can run."

If Brunetti runs a meet, he can run a poker room. And if he runs two meets in consecutive years and the state of Florida can agree with the Seminole Indians on a gambling compact, Hialeah could have Thoroughbred racing and a Las Vegas-style casino within two years.

Brunetti has scheduled the two meets so that the second one begins three days after the first one ends.

He has gambled $20 million to get the track up and running for the Quarter Horses and is prepared to spend another $80 million to build a casino and restore the park if the gambling pact goes down.

The plans are in Brunetti's office. A poker room will be built behind the grandstand in the old pavilion. The casino will be built at the entrance to the grandstand. Whatever restoration is done will match the existing architecture.

And then the Thoroughbreds come. Fingers crossed.

"This isn't a slam dunk," Brunetti admits.

Although Gov. Charlie Crist signed the compact with the Seminoles in the summer, estimated at $6.8 billion over 20 years, legislators have refused to ratify the deal because they want more concessions from the Seminoles. House Speaker Larry Cretul of Ocala has said the two sides have hit an impasse, and he has reached out to the National Indian Gaming Commission to help apply pressure on the tribe.

Other hurdles stand in the way of Hialeah's return. Will it be able to compete with Gulfstream Park and Calder Race Course if racing dates remain deregulated? Will the tracks be able to work out a deal with horsemen over purses?

The recent state of racing in Florida hasn't exactly been rosy, leading David Romanik, former general counsel at Hialeah Park and former president of Gulfstream, to remark, "What would be bad about Hialeah Park coming back? It's not like things can get any worse."

Brunetti, however, is taking the gamble.

"There's a lot to do, but my plan is to make it happen," he said. "I'm still sticking to what I said 35 years ago. I came here to save Hialeah and help racing."

The savior of Hialeah or the villain?

Hialeah Park has a convoluted history - hatred fueled by time. The track has faced an uphill battle for survival for 30 years. Competition, greed, the frenzy to secure the mid-winter racing dates, and deregulation led to its demise and its closing after the last race was run May 22, 2001.

Even now, many within the industry resent Brunetti and refuse to talk about him or the possible resurrection of Hialeah. Tallahassee lobbyist Marc Dunbar, who represents Gulfstream Park, recently told the Miami Herald that Brunetti "deserves all the criticism over the years."

Barbara D. Livingston

15px;">Owner John Brunetti said his goal is to return Thoroughbred racing to Hialeah, not just run a Quarter Horse meet. "That's not our expectations," he said.

Brunetti's critics blame him for not paying horsemen enough in purses, for letting the track deteriorate, and for not taking a deal in the 1980s that would have given him winter racing days. They believe he forced horsemen to choose when he tried unsuccessfully to race head-to-head against Calder in 1989. They are critical of him for not taking advantages of previous breaks from the legislature.

Much has changed since Brunetti purchased the track in 1977. Tourists and the affluent left Miami and pushed north to Broward County and the beaches east of Gulfstream Park. The push north, coupled with demographic changes, allowed Gulfstream and Calder to provide more revenue to the state.

Some believe Brunetti couldn't accept the changes.

"You know the history," said Brunetti, a developer who has been active in racing for four decades and owns Red Oak Farm. "I'm not a crybaby. I don't know who's been vilified, who's been the cause of it. I can tell you any chance I can to debate it with anyone, I'm happy to. I fought through dates battles and fought through the various ownerships at Gulfstream and Calder, the ownerships of the Firestones and Japanese that I predicted would be fiascos, and now the two conglomerates," he said, referring to Churchill and Magna.

"I could have said, 'No,' and buried Hialeah once and for all," he said. "But there were too many people, including the owners who preceded me, great horsemen themselves, and the citizens of Hialeah whose identity was this city. When I talked about developing the land to people, they acted like we were going to bury a friend. I felt I had to take one last chance. As far as being the villain, how could we be blamed for anything beyond [2001]? We've been out of the picture, a non-entity."

From 2001 to 2007, Brunetti spent $1,000 each month to feed the flamingos and approximately $15 million paying taxes and funding mixed-use studies for the property. The 350 flamingos are good. The mixed-use studies? None panned out. When it was time to figure out how to get a referendum on the ballot for casino gambling, the other pari-mutuel tracks did not invite Hialeah to those discussions. "That shows their disregard or disdain for us," he said. Talks with entrepreneur Halsey Minor to resurrect the track ended in Minor filing suit against Hialeah, claiming Brunetti shouldn't have been deeded the property without a public vote. "It's a free country," Brunetti said with a shrug.

During the bleak times, Brunetti even called the New York Racing Association about working with it.

"I think we could have been the Saratoga of the south," he said. "Without getting into personalities, half of the people I talked to thought it was a great idea. But their financial situation was so bad at that time they said they'd put it on the backburner. I still keep that option open."

Things started changing for Brunetti and Hialeah in 2007. Political contacts were made, and there was a huge push by Miami-Dade lawmakers to give Hialeah one last shot. That opportunity came in July 2008, when a previous gambling pact between the Seminoles and Gov. Crist was invalidated by the Florida Supreme Court. One year later, Crist and the Seminoles carved out the latest incarnation of a pact, which offers parimutuels a better tax rate and Hialeah Thoroughbred racing dates and a casino.

So is Brunetti optimistic about seeing Thoroughbreds run across that fabled turf course again and a thriving casino fueling purses?

"I change two or three times a day," he admitted. "At one point, it looked like the pact would pass. But I see a breach between what the governor had done and what the legislators had expected. If [the compact] doesn't happen, the next hope would be they pass some sort of legislation without the Indian compact. If that doesn't work, maybe nothing gets passed, and that would be a fatal stroke to this whole thing."

There's hope, but no guarantees

As soon as word got out that Hialeah would be erecting about 1,000 temporary stalls for the Quarter Horse meet, Thoroughbred horsemen began calling Hialeah about the possibility of training over the legendary surface. The horsemen asked not to be identified out of fear they would lose their stalls the following year at Gulfstream, Palm Meadows, or Calder.

Nevertheless, the calls revealed the track still means that much, maybe more than ever. Don't forget, Hialeah is loaded with small, blue-collar businesses and is the fifth-largest city in Florida with close to 230,000 residents. It's bigger than Fort Lauderdale, Tallahassee, and Orlando. Now put a $100 million casino in the middle of that environment and the creation of 10,000 jobs. Considering the grim financial situations at Calder and Gulfstream, could Hialeah be the answer?

"The whole thing is a little premature," said Sam Gordon, president of the Florida Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association. "But with Churchill slashing purses at Calder and the other track losing good management people," he said, referring to Bill Murphy, who recently resigned as head of Gulfstream, "we'll talk if there's something there."

Richard Hancock, executive vice president of the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders' and Owners' Association, said the blueprint of racing has changed.

"With some tracks not racing as many days as they have in the past, and with the casinos and card rooms, there's probably opportunities for new models," he said. "Maybe we're looking at smaller meets with higher purses? I don't know, but if [Brunetti] jumps through all the hoops and he's successful getting a Thoroughbred meet and everything else, we'd all have to sit down and see if Hialeah can fit into the picture."

In 1969, Diane Crump became the first female jockey to ride at a major U.S. track.

Brunetti has always dreamed big. Even now, at 78, he's not looking to simply operate a mixed-breeds meet with a poker room. It's Thoroughbreds and a casino or nothing at all. Heck, Hialeah could be the Breeders' Cup's only way to get back to Florida.

"We won't submit ourselves to a Quarter Horse meet and poker room. That's not our expectations," he said. "I think it would be a disservice, a lack of appreciation, of what Hialeah has been and should be."

And Brunetti is putting up all the money, although he said he'll consider partners "with a merger, acquisition or joint venture where Hialeah would be part of the remaining entity. That's if it gets as big as we hope."

After signing the compact with the Seminoles this year, Crist strolled across Hialeah Park and remarked, "This is about renovating a historic park that means so much to the fabric of the community."

"It is magnificent," he said. "Its architecture is incredible."

For the last several weeks, Hialeah has been filled with workers. The main track is rich and brown again. No soybeans. No weeds. The turf course is green. The old dame is getting a facial, getting made up for one last dance.

And she's ready. The lights on the chandelier inside the Citation Dining Room are reflecting on empty tables. There are jackets and cups inside the gift shop waiting to be purchased. New lilies have been placed in the shallow pool at the Citation statue.

The ceiling fans creak and hum. The mind races. And ghosts are stirring.

Hialeah Park history

1920 Missouri cattleman James Bright and aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss donate land for community use and help acquire building funds for construction of public buildings, facilities, and a racetrack.
1922 First parimutuel greyhound track in America opened by Miami Kennel Club and Owen Smith, inventor of the 'hare conveyor' that allowed a mechanical rabbit device to move inside a circular track.
1924 Joseph Smoot, Curtiss, and Bright establish Miami Jockey Club and construct grandstand.
1925 Hialeah Park opens for recreational use with amusement park, dance hall, fronton, paddock, and 21 stables.
1926 Great Hurricane of 1926 damages Hialeah.
1932 Joseph E. Widener buys Hialeah and renovates the track with architect Lester Geisler. He also imports flamingos from Cuba. On Jan. 14, 1932, the track is reopened.
1933 Hialeah reopens with first totalisator system in the U.S.
1935 Seabiscuit makes his racing debut.
1936 First photo-finish camera installed.
1938 War Admiral wins the Widener Handicap.
1941 Hialeah becomes first organization to carry insurance on jockeys.
1946 Winston Churchill visits.
1948 Citation wins Flamingo Stakes.
1957 Bold Ruler wins Flamingo Stakes.
1964 Northern Dancer wins the Flamingo Stakes.
1969 Diane Crump becomes first female jockey at major U.S. track.
1974 Forego wins the first of consecutive Widener Handicaps.
1977 John Brunetti buys Hialeah. Seattle Slew wins the Flamingo.
1979 Hialeah is listed on National Register of Historic Places.
1980 John Henry wins Hialeah Turf Cup.
1983 Nijinsky's Secret wins the first of consecutive Hialeah Turf Cups.
1986 Turkoman sets a track record winning Widener Handicap.
1988 Hialeah is determined eligible for designation as a National Historic Landmark by the Secretary of the Interior.
2001 Hialeah runs its last thoroughbred race.
2008 Florida's Supreme Court invalidates 2007 gambling pact between Gov. Crist and Seminole tribe.
2009 On Aug. 31, Gov. Crist and Seminole tribe agree on new gambling pact, which allows Hialeah to offer live races again and open a poker room.
2009 On Nov. 28, track is scheduled to reopen with 40 racing days, concluding Feb. 2, 2010.

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