Hialeah Redux: Beyond Brunetti, Minor

Hialeah Redux: Beyond Brunetti, Minor
Photo: Blood-Horse Library
The Walking Ring at Hialeah in 1965.
Hialeah Park owner John Brunetti is looking forward to meeting with prospective buyer Halsey Minor about what he calls multiple “hurdles” to returning racing to the historic track that last held a meet in 2001.
Technology entrepreneur Minor says he is already familiar with those issues, including Hialeah’s lack of a racing permit and the often-bitter battles among track owners over South Florida racing dates.
“I realize it will be no layup in getting a permit,” Minor said. “I know the other issues and the paths.”
Minor and Brunetti each said they hope to have an initial meeting during the week of Aug. 4. As of July 31, they had not picked a date and location. Meanwhile, reports of Minor’s plans have led several Florida racing officials to say they are willing to look at methods for re-opening the track in Hialeah, Fla.
But some lingering issues are already starting to brew. Officials of Gulfstream Park and of the Florida Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association mentioned the prospect of a restored Hialeah running a boutique meet of four or six weeks in April or in the fall -- with Gulfstream and Calder Race Course dark.
Minor said he would plan to race at Hialeah during winter months -- the dates it ran during most of its history. Gulfstream since the late 1990s has been running from early January through late April.
“I will run on Hialeah’s historic days, which I think are the best days for the track and its fans,” he said. “May the best man win.”
Minor said on July 22 that he had talked to Brunetti on the phone about his interest in buying and renovating Hialeah Park . Brunetti later acknowledged the conversation, but at the time said he wasn't interested in selling.
Minor, 44, is the multimillionaire founder of CNET Networks and owns several horses including grade-I winner Dream Rush. In 1993, Minor launched CNET, an on-line Internet search site for technology products, and headed it until 1999. He retains an investment in the company, which CBS has agreed to buy in a $1.8 billion deal scheduled to close during this year’s third quarter.
He estimates it would cost between $30 million and $40 million to refurbish and re-open Hialeah, not counting purchase of the land.
“I don’t need to do this, but I would like to bring Hialeah back in a way to help rebuild racing as a fan-driven sport,” Minor said. “I have the financial resources, and the proven track record of doing things well and successfully.”
Hialeah opened in 1925 and gained a place in American lore with its grandstand, flamingos, star horses like Citation and Seattle Slew, and visitors that included Winston Churchill.
Challenges to overcome

Brunetti bought the 206-acre property in 1977. The track was among those that encountered economic difficulties during the 1990s.

Florida’s 2002 deregulation of racing dates led to a situation in which Hialeah would not have any exclusive dates. That left the prospect of running on the same dates as nearby Gulfstream, owned by Magna Entertainment Corp., or Calder, owned by Churchill Downs Inc.
During several previous years, Hialeah had several disputes with Gulfstream, Calder, and the Florida HPBA over issues including racing dates and finances.
In 2003, the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering (DPMW) revoked Hialeah’s racing permit because it had not run a minimum number of required dates for two consecutive years.
Hialeah appealed that decision to a Florida administrative agency. It maintained that the lack of exclusive dates made it unlikely that it could have a profitable meet, thus not justifying revocation of its permit.
Hialeah sued the DPMW in 2004. The track lost that case in a Miami-Dade County circuit court and in a state appeals court, which returned it to the Miami court. Lawyers are preparing to take new discovery on the case, which Hialeah plans to pursue.
Hialeah’s permit is not grandfathered or subject to a renewal. The Florida Legislature would need to authorize another Thoroughbred permit for Miami-Dade County before Brunetti or another Hialeah owner could apply for a permit.

To hear Lenny Shulman and Steve Haskin's take on the potential return of Hialeah Park, check out the latest episode of "And They're Off!"

Local help

If a Hialeah Park owner can finance renovations and present a plan for successful operation, Hialeah Mayor Julio Robaina believes supporters in the legislature could gain approval of a permit “if they can show if the interest is right for the state.”
Most of Hialeah Park is zoned as “open area,” or park land. A portion is zoned for limited commercial use.
Brunetti has asked government agencies for zoning changes, which have not been approved.
“That possibility is always on track,” he said, noting that the absence of non-compete racing dates has forced the consideration of other uses of the property.
A Miami-Dade Metrorail station is next to Hialeah Park. That has led to periodic reports that developers might want to buy the property for residential or mixed-use development, if zoning is changed.
The track was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979, and it is officially designated as a sanctuary for the American Flamingo by the Audubon Society.
Those designations could enable the city to obtain grants and other funding to help Brunetti or Minor refurbish the track, Robaina said.
“My number one intention is to re-open Hialeah Park as a race course, to revive it and its history in our city and the community,” he said. “I welcome any sale, joint venture or partnership that could accomplish that.”
Robaina said he would like to meet with Minor. Alex Fuentes, founder of volunteer organization Citizens to Save Hialeah Park, has had several meetings with Minor.
Horsemen support?

Officials of Calder and of CDI declined comment on Minor’s goal of buying Hialeah and on any possible re-opening of the track.
Kent Stirling, executive director of the Florida HPBA, and Marc Dunbar, an attorney who represents Gulfstream and Magna, each said his organization would consider plans for retuning racing to Hialeah -- with conditions.
“It has been a great surface to train on, and has a great turf course,” Stirling said. “I think many of our members would like to return there, but not if Mr. Brunetti is involved.”
Stirling pointed to Florida HPBA records that he claims show a series of late payments by Hialeah of purse money in 2001.
“That left a sour taste with many horsemen,” said Phil Combest, a vice president of the Florida HBPA.
But Brunetti said numerous FHBPA members and other trainers, including Nick Zito and Todd Pletcher, have told him they would like to return to Hialeah -- with him as owner.
“We (Magna and Gulfstream) do not have a problem with racing resuming at Hialeah,” said Dunbar, a partner in the Pennington Law Firm in Tallahassee.
“In order for that to happen, Calder, Gulfstream, the horsemen, John and the City of Hialeah would have to be on the same page,” he said. “Heretofore, we have not been able to accomplish that for many reasons.”
In 2000, after it did not get DPMW approval for its barns, Hialeah held its meet at Gulfstream. The two tracks had financial disputes during and after that meet, Dunbar said.
“It is disingenuous that after we stopped running, Calder and Gulfstream have not competed against each other one day,” Brunetti said.
He said he would welcome a meeting with CDI chairman Robert Evans and MEC chairman Frank Stronach on Hialeah’s permit and related issues.
“I would definitely be there -- and get there early,” he said.
Making plans

At a meeting with Minor, Brunetti plans to “talk about things beyond our dream of re-opening Hialeah.”
“Hurdle number one is the issue of the permit,” he said. “Hurdle number two is the issue of non-assigned dates. This is not like a business where there is enough of a market for any gas station or store.”
Another issue is the logistics of re-opening Hialeah’s barn area and repairing hurricane-related damages to the track area and buildings, Brunetti said.
“I also will talk about the availability of horses,” he said. “There is the issue of political pressure by the conglomerates, who could restrain horsemen who are beholden to them to get stalls at their other tracks.”
If political and administrative hurdles can be cleared, Brunetti estimates it could take another year to re-open Hialeah for racing.
Minor said he is ready to begin work on overcoming those obstacles.
“I have heard that there are numerous people who would like to bring racing back to Hialeah and have me be the one to bring it back,” he said. “It is hard to find anyone with the credentials I have who will risk this substantial amount of money for that goal.”

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