BY JOEY FLECHAS
Hialeah Park has become the latest South Florida racetrack to get into gaming, recently opening its doors to an enthusiastic public who has swarmed to the gleaming slot machines and poker tables.
It marks another step in the comeback of one of the city’s historic landmarks.
The park, which closed in 2001 and reopened in 2009, is now the Hialeah Park Casino – a mixture of old and new. It is a glitzy gambling oasis attached to a stately horse racing track with history tied together by its Renaissance architecture.
Randy Propson, a 23-year-old poker aficionado visiting from Las Vegas, took in the sights as he waited for a spot to open up at a table in the second floor poker room of the facility at 2200 E. Fourth Ave.
What he saw left him impressed.
“It’s kind of like an oasis in a desert,” he said.
In its heyday, when it was home to thoroughbred racing, dignitaries like Winston Churchill, Harry Truman and Princess Grace of Monaco visited.
Now, the track hosts quarter-horse racing, a less-popular race where horses only run a quarter-mile. The Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering revoked Hialeah’s thoroughbred permit in 2004 after the park went two years without holding races.
The addition of a casino follows the trend of other South Florida tracks that have grown into “racinos.”
Gaming revenues have helped keep the pari-mutuel industry – which includes racing and jai-alai – alive.
At Miami Jai Alai, for example, the actual matches nets a loss of about $1 million every year. By contrast, slot machines deliver $1.1 million in cash to the operation, weekly. “Most of the pari-mutuels, left on their own, are not profitable businesses,” said one Hialeah Park executive.
“Gaming was able to come to the rescue.”
With the gambling and entertainment comes 500 new jobs, and the casino is looking to hire more servers for unexpected rush of guests during this soft opening period. Since it opened two weeks ago, an average of 8,000 to10,000 daily visitors have been coming through the doors, said Frank Fiore, vice president and creative director.
On the first floor, slot machines jingle and ding for as long as the casino is open, from 9 a.m. to 3 a.m. Sunday through Thursday, and 24 hours on the weekends. Jennifer Torres, a poker dealer who migrated over from the Magic City Casino, says she enjoys the interaction with the crowds at her new job.
“It gets really tense,” she said of the Texas Hold ‘Em games she deals. “I like the excitement.”
Tying together horse racing with the bright lights and jackpots are the iconic and ever-present pink flamingoes, which live outside along the lake in the center of the track. They adorn the poker chips and the floor of the front entrance, and metal replicas stand in the fountain outside.
Organizers are planning free festivities this upcoming weekend to mark the “rededication” of the casino.
At 9 p.m. Saturday, salsa star Willy Chirino, who grew up in Hialeah, will perform. Chirino is being billed as the “face of the casino.”
At 2 p.m. Sunday, jazz saxophonist Joe Donato will play.
Fiore said Friday night’s show is the first of a 13-part series called “Salsa Under the Stars.” Similarly, Sunday afternoons will feature jazz players for 13 weeks. Saturday nights will be a mix.
“We’re going to throw in some cover bands, some rock ‘n’ roll, some rhythm and blues and a little reggae,” Fiore said.
Owner John Brunetti, who invested $100 million into the park’s renovation and expansion, told the Miami Herald the casino is the first part of a multiphase expansion. He envisions retails stores and a hotel in the facility’s future. Even with the plans of expansion, horse racing remains key to Brunetti’s vision.
“Hopefully, we’ll be back in the thoroughbred business soon,” he said.
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