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With one lung gone, Hialeah Park owner John Brunetti focuses on giving
John Brunetti is working harder to catch his breath this year. That’s what happens when you have only one lung.
Brunetti, owner of Hialeah Park, had a cancerous lung removed this summer and wasn’t much seen roaming the 200-acre property, which consists of a horse track and a casino. It’s his third major health issue — he had a triple bypass in 1996 and a kidney transplant four years ago — and he acknowledges he has become a little more reflective.
“I’m rounding third base and headed for home,”says Brunetti, a nonsmoker who turns 87 on Jan. 18.
With that in mind, Brunetti has tried to expand the reach of his foundation, created in 1974. He has long been a supporter of the University of Miami — not just athletics, but also medical research and higher education — and has recently branched into human-rights causes and even more medical challenges.
“I’m starting to expand the foundation, and a program for giving back.”
That includes working with State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle to fight human trafficking, working more with Jackson Memorial Hospital and supporting the Wounded Warrior Project and healthcare for those born with a cleft palate. The Brunetti Foundation also sponsored the local PBS airing of Ken Burns’ recent series, “The Vietnam War.”
“I’m growing my giving the way I grew my business,” he says. Then, tapping his heart, he says: “You have to ask yourself, ‘Where do you get your satisfaction?’”
Brunetti takes after his father, Joe, who immigrated to Brooklyn from Bari, Italy, with his wife. They had married as teens. Joe Brunetti worked “every possible job,” and raised his family in a one-room apartment. John and his younger sister shared an L-shaped couch, sleeping feet to feet.
Joe Brunetti eventually bought a lot for $50, then created a construction housing business. He built 7,000 apartments from 1946-53, when the U.S. was in a post-World War II boom.
John Brunetti, meanwhile, attended New York Military Academy — “my father said he wanted me to have a life better than his” — and tried school at Rutgers University with plans of being an architect or an engineer. He didn’t like it, and transferred to the University of Miami, graduating with a business administration degree in 1952.
He remembers being the only one in an apartment of five with a car, and as the youngest, he deferred to his roommates.
“Let’s go to the track,” he remembers his roommates saying one day.
“We went to Gulfstream, Tropical Park and Hialeah,” Brunetti says. “I loved Hialeah right away. It was breathtaking.”
That spurred his interest in horse racing, to the point that in 1957, he and his father split shares of a horse.
“I still remember the name. Vertex,” Brunetti says.
Meanwhile, he flourished in construction, building a business that includes 5,000 apartments in New Jersey and 3,000 in South Florida, leading the area in what is now known as garden-style apartments.
And in 1974, he heard the owners of Gulfstream Park were attempting to buy Hialeah Park from then-owner Bert Galbreath. So Brunetti called him, too.
“I said, ‘I’m just a little person, but may I come talk to you?’” Brunetti recalls. It took until 1977 to close the deal, and Brunetti said Galbreath, who he felt was rooting for him, accepting Brunetti’s mother’s $400,000 certificate of deposit as a down payment.
While Brunetti had an interest in horse racing, he also was doing well with construction. So while the story can now be reverse-engineered to make it look like a labor of love, he was also thinking business: 200 acres of park-like property in the heart of a city that could be used for homes, shops … just about anything.
Since then, the track has opened and closed twice, and Brunetti took a case for slots at Hialeah Park to the Florida Supreme Court, creating his share of enemies and critics. And, like most racetrack casino owners, he lobbies Tallahassee legislators for a lower slot-tax rate, the right to offer blackjack and other casino wishes.
But Hialeah Park has embraced him, he says, calling Hialeah Park’s grounds “the heart and soul of this city.”
“You come to America to do better things,” he says. “If you were a baker in Italy, you would be a baker for life. Only in America can you be what you want to be.”
And at this time of his life, he is focused on making sure he gives back. A health scare like the one he had will do that to a guy.
“Yes, it has made me more reflective,” he says. “No doubt about that.”
BY NICK SORTAL
Hialeah Park Racing & Casino, with entrances at 100 East 32nd
Street and 2200 East 4th Avenue, is easily accessible from all major Miami highways. The landmark venue is conveniently located just minutes by car from Miami International Airport, South Beach, Downtown Miami, Coral Gables, and Doral.
JOHN HERNANDEZ / DIRECTOR OF RACING NEWS & PUBLICITY
Jhernandez@hialeahpark.com / (305) 885-8000
Hialeah Park –“The World’s Most Beautiful Race Course”– is one of Miami’s most iconic destinations.
For more information, please call 305-885-8000 or visit www.hialeahpark.com