Hialeah’s Fabled Track Seeks a Rebirth
The newly opened Hialeah Park Casino houses 882 slot machines and a poker room with 23 poker tables.
MAGGIE STEBER FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES
By BARRY BEARAK
February 22, 2014
HIALEAH, Fla. — John Brunetti is 83, which makes him slightly younger thanHialeah Park, the famous racetrack he owns. Both are looking pretty good for their age.
On a recent Friday afternoon, Brunetti was in the clubhouse eating a Cuban sandwich and sipping sangria when he grew excited by one of the races. The distance was 1,000 yards, quite a long haul for the quarter horses that race here. Usually, the breed excels at running a quarter mile or less, and the competition involves no more strategy than a speeding bullet. But this time the horses were actually coming around a turn and jockeying for position rather than sprinting along a single straightaway.
“Reminds me of a thoroughbred race; at least you’re seeing something unfold,” Brunetti said. He is disdainful of his own product. “I don’t follow quarter horse racing,” he said as if it were beneath his dignity. “It lasts 21 seconds. What can you strategize? What can you describe? What can you learn?”
Many horseplayers would be surprised to find any racing at all at Hialeah Park, near Miami. Though one of the grand palaces of the sport of kings — as elegant as Saratoga or Churchill Downs — the racetrack has been in the financial doldrums for 40 years and has not held a thoroughbred race since 2001.
Slide Show | A Fabled Track Tries to Come Back John Brunetti Sr., owner of Hialeah Park, revived the famed track with quarter horse racing and a casino, and he hopes thoroughbreds will follow.
The racetrack, symbolized by the graceful pink flamingos that soar above the infield, has had several near-death experiences. Premature obituaries were penned by writers who cherished Hialeah as a paradise with a tote board, one of the loveliest places on the planet to lose money. “Requiem for a Racetrack,” Newsweek sighed in 1975. “Final Run for Glory,” Sports Illustrated lamented in 1988.
Brunetti, who has owned the racetrack since 1977, reopened it four years ago after nearly a decade-long hiatus. New state legislation allowed him to host quarter horse racing, and though he considered the sport only a “minor league attraction,” the law provided quite an enticement: If he held meets for two consecutive years, he would then be entitled to open a casino on the property.
Casino profits are an elixir that has revived many a woebegone racetrack, and the result here has been predictable enough. The quarter horse racing is sparsely attended, with Hialeah expected to lose $9 million to $10 million during the 40-day meet that ends Sunday, Brunetti said.
“The more we race, the more we lose,” he grumbled.
But away from the glorious Florida sunshine, and aloof from pounding hooves of the horses, Brunetti’s betting parlor of slot machines and card games, which opened in August, is drawing substantial crowds. The casino’s success offsets the racetrack’s losses, he said.
Brunetti, who can be alternately charming, stubborn and dismissive, now hopes to maneuver Hialeah back into thoroughbred racing. Legislators are planning to revise the state’s gambling laws in the next few years, and he has been lobbying for special consideration.
For years, Florida apportioned thoroughbred racing dates among the region’s three tracks, the big winner being the one granted a January-through-March meet during the height of the tourist season. Recently, however, the schedule was deregulated, creating a bruising free-for-all. The two other tracks, Gulfstream and Calder, now compete head-to-head, though they are only eight miles apart.
Brunetti, along with friendly legislators, wants the state to once again divide the schedule, this time giving Hialeah enough prime racing dates to allow for its resurrection as a thoroughbred track.
“It is our birthright; Hialeah deserves to be in the thoroughbred industry,” Brunetti said, as if claiming a privilege based on his racetrack’s age and reputation. “Think of how the state benefited from Hialeah putting South Florida on the map as a fabled destination in the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s and ’60s.”
Of course, that was a half century ago.
“Brunetti is talking about a heyday that has a singular place in Miami history, but those days are long gone,” the Florida historian Paul George said. “There isn’t much of a taste for horse racing anymore. And besides, the action has swung to the city center and the beaches.”
In 1924, Hialeah Park — then known as the Miami Jockey Club — opened on land that had been drained along soggy reaches of the Everglades. A full-time snake catcher was hired to patrol the infield.
In the 1930s, under the ownership of Joseph Widener, the racetrack was rebuilt into something grand, like a mansion on a country estate. Winding staircases and stone archways led to the betting windows. Bougainvillea vines laden with coral and magenta blooms grew along the outdoor walls. Palm Beach socialites arrived on the cushioned seats of special trains. Hialeah’s annual opening was as big an event for the society pages as for the sports sections. Men wore coats and ties; women donned jewelry and hats.
But by the 1970s Hialeah, though still holding important races with some of the nation’s best horses, was in financial difficulty. Gulfstream, itself an alluring place, enjoyed a better location, nearer the heavily populated high-rises along the beaches. In 1972, Hialeah lost the prime winter racing dates for the first time. From then on, obtaining that sweet spot on the calendar became an annual battle that required wooing the right state officials and winning the inevitable court battles.
Some years, Brunetti had the upper hand; other times, he was outfoxed.
“Looking back, I guess it was a mistake not to work out a long-term rotation of the dates with Gulfstream,” he said.
Brunetti made his fortune in New Jersey real estate, and from time to time he threatens to tear down Hialeah Park and develop the property for other uses. Although that might be heartbreaking for him, it would also be a rebuke to state officials who have ignored his warnings.
“There’s a little bit of anger in it,” Brunetti said. “It’s like the man who died and said, ‘See, I told you I was sick.’ ”
On this particular afternoon, more people were playing the slot machines than watching the races. Brunetti led a private tour of the new casino.
“Look at these terrazzo floors,” he said with a sweep of his hand. “You want to know where I spent $60 million? Look at the grille work. Look at the fixtures. Look at these rounded corners on the ways to the restrooms. Those are tiles from Italy.”
The tour proceeded into a series of huge empty spaces, which Brunetti called his “aces in the hole.” He has plans for a ballroom and more grandstands.
“Why can’t we be holding a Breeders’ Cup here?” he asked. “There’s no reason why not. How do you get the Breeders’ Cup? How do you get anything in life? You hope, you work, you pray.”
Finally, he walked down toward the racetrack itself. More quarter horses were going to the post. He glanced at the animals; he looked at the thin crowd. These weren’t thoroughbred people, he said, just easy-to-please locals who had no passion for horse racing.
He said, “It’s something for them to do, like going to a movie.”