But as of Aug. 20, Brunetti and Minor had not discussed a sales price for the historic track in Hialeah, Fla.
“I have sent John an operational plan, and I am getting estimates and valuations from my advisors,“ Minor said. Two teams of his advisors toured Hialeah Park between Aug. 14 and Aug. 20.
“We have made progress and have established an honest and constructive line of communication,” said Brunetti, who has owned Hialeah Park since 1977. “I still need to know more about the depth of his commitment for the time and money that would be involved.”
Minor, the 43-year old multimillionaire founder of CNET Networks, said he is “young enough to fight the battles” needed to return racing to Hialeah.
Minor would not give a timetable for when he might give Brunetti a priced offer to buy the track.
Hialeah held its last racing meet in 2001, following several years of financial problems. During its final years of racing, Hialeah found it difficult to compete economically with nearby Gulfstream Park, owned by Magna Entertainment Corp., and Calder Race Course, owned by Churchill Downs Inc.
In 2003, the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering revoked Hialeah’s permit after it did not conduct a meet for two straight years -- as required for Florida Thoroughbred tracks. In 2002, Florida deregulated racing -- thus not permitting Brunetti to obtain any exclusive racing dates.
Brunetti and Hialeah politicians have annually asked the Florida Legislature to return to a regulated Thoroughbred calendar. Meanwhile, Brunetti has unsuccessfully sought to change Hialeah Park’s zoning to provide the prospect of a sale to a residential or mixed-use developer if he could not re-open it for racing.
Talk of re-opening Hialeah resurfaced on July 22, when Minor first said he had contacted Brunetti about his interest in buying the track. Minor and Brunetti met at Hialeah Park on Aug. 6 and at Del Mar on Aug. 12. Minor returned to South Florida on Aug. 14 to meet with Hialeah Mayor Julio Robaina, who has opposed any efforts to convert Hialeah Park to non-racing use.
In 2004, Fortune magazine estimated Minor’s net worth at $286 million, from investments in CNET and other Internet and technology companies. Minor owns several Thoroughbreds including filly Dream Rush, who won four graded stakes as a 3-year old in 2007.
“I realize that John would not want to sell unless he can find someone who is as truly committed to Hialeah as he is,” Minor said. “I don’t think he has ever gotten to this point before (on a possible sale).”
Minor and Brunetti each said they would consider the prospect of Brunetti remaining as an advisor if Minor buys Hialeah Park.
The track opened in 1925 and was known for its landscape and architecture, as well as star-quality winter racing. But when Minor toured the property on Aug. 6, he saw a grandstand that still bears heavy damage from 2005 hurricanes and racing surfaces that are covered with tall grasses.
Minor and Brunetti have both estimated that it would cost at least $30 million to refurbish and rebuild the grandstand and the remainder of the property. Minor said he is prepared to spend that money and take about three years for a restoration.
Engineers believe that Hialeah’s grandstand would need extensive structural repairs but would not need to be torn down, Robaina said.
In 2007, Miami-Dade County’s appraised valuation of the 206-acre property was $17.1 million. Brunetti said he pays about $1.5 million a year in taxes and maintenance for the property, using cash flow from his real estate development business.
Hialeah Park 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 pay for refurbishing the property, Robaina said.
“If they (Brunetti and Minor) can get financial terms out of the way, we would work with the permitting process and with architects to get things done in a way that would preserve the integrity of Hialeah Park,” Robaina said. “I remain ready to work with John, if the licensing issues could be overcome.”
Brunetti’s disputes with other tracks and with state government officials are making it difficult for him to obtain a new racing permit.
“Unfortunately, he has developed an adversarial relationship with some people in racing and in the Legislature,” said State Sen. Dennis Jones, a Republican from the St. Petersburg area who has sponsored several bills that would help Florida’s pari-mutuel industry.
“The introduction of new ownership and new money might lead to some support for getting a new permit,” Jones said. “I would not stand in his (Minor’s) way if he has the support of the Dade delegation, and they follow the right rules.”
However, several leaders of the Republican-controlled Legislature oppose any pari-mutuel industry expansion.
Thus, economic factors and to a greater degree political factors are making Minor’s goal of re-opening Hialeah a heavy long-shot.
Despite those obstacles, Minor said he is prepared for more meetings with Brunetti about what he calls a “passing of the torch” at Hialeah.
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