Hialeah OK'd for Quarter Horse Racing
Photo: Blood-Horse Library
The Hialeah Walking Ring, circa 1965.

Hialeah Park received a Quarter Horse permit from the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering on March 17, with an apparent mandate to begin that racing by March 17, 2010. The track in Hialeah, Fla., last held Thoroughbred racing in 2001, and its owner John Brunetti last year estimated it would cost at least $30 million to renovate the 206-acre property and resume that racing.
 
Brunetti was traveling and not available for comment.
 
Meanwhile, State Rep. Steve Bovo (R-Hialeah) has introduced a bill that if approved by the Florida Legislature could allow Hialeah Park to resume Thoroughbred racing in a limited form under its Quarter Horse permit.
 
The bill would permit Quarter Horse tracks in Florida to hold Thoroughbred races for up to 50% of a meet’s races--even when a Thoroughbred track within a 50-mile radius is holding a meet, and without their authorization. Gulfstream Park and Calder Race Course are both within 15 miles of Hialeah Park.
 
Florida has no operating Quarter Horse tracks. State laws permit only Quarter Horse tracks and no other pari-mutuels to substitute Thoroughbred races for their regular programs. Currently, Quarter Horse tracks could substitute with Thoroughbred or other horse racing for up to 50% of a meet’s races, only with written consent of all pari-mutuels within their 50-mile radius and only when there are no Thoroughbred meets within that radius.
 
Bovo’s bill also would remove Florida’s prohibition on a Quarter Horse permit holder converting to another pari-mutuel permit. In addition, it would allow a Quarter Horse track to offer simulcast wagering without written consent of all other pari-mutuels within its 50-mile radius.
 
Marc Dunbar, an attorney who represents Gulfstream and its parent Magna Entertainment Corp. said Gulfstream is focusing on its efforts to obtain tax restructuring for its racing and casino operations and thus “is not opposed to Rep. Bovo’s bill in its present form.”
 
Calder is owned by Churchill Downs Inc.
 
“As per our policy, neither Calder nor CDI has a comment on this proposed bill, nor Hialeah’s application for the quarter horse license,” said Calder spokeswoman Michele Blanco.
 
Bovo is a former Hialeah Park official and was the track’s spokesman earlier this decade. He was first elected to the Florida Legislature last November.
 
South Florida Racing Association last Nov. 3 filed for a Quarter Horse racing permit for Hialeah Park. Brunetti and his sons John Jr. and Stephen are principals of South Florida Racing Association.
 
Companies that receive Quarter Horse permits in Florida must begin racing within one year of approval if they have a facility.
 
If approval is for a new facility, the permit holder must begin construction within one year of receiving the permit.
 
The Florida DPMW is considering Hialeah Park an existing facility because it has a racing oval, said Florida DPMW director David Roberts.
 
Hialeah Park’s racing surfaces are overrun with tall grass. But Brunetti last year said he believes they have a base and foundation for a return to racing.
 
The last Quarter Horse races in Florida were in 1991 at harness track Pompano Park in Pompano Beach.
 
But the Florida DPMW received 10 applications for Quarter Horse licenses since 2007. Those licenses have no geographical restrictions on where those can be located--provided they are in a county that permits pari-mutuel wagering.
 
Florida does not allow other new pari-mutuel licenses within 100 miles of a Greyhound track or within 50 miles of a Thoroughbred track, harness track or jai-alai fronton.
 
New Quarter Horse tracks and all other Florida pari-mutuels can have card rooms, which can be open 12 hours per day year-round.
 
To retain a racing permit and card room license, a Quarter Horse track that offers simulcasting must hold at least 40 performances with at least eight races per performance. Without simulcasting, state laws permit a minimum of one race per year to retain a card room license.
 
In its application, Hialeah Park said it plans to hold 10 Quarter Horse programs, with eight races per day, during its first Quarter Horse season.

Hialeah Park also said it plans to operate a card room with 20 poker tables and 25 domino tables, and that it does not plan to have simulating during its first year.
 
The Hialeah City Commission would need to approve the card room license, Roberts said.
 
Hialeah Park stopped holding Thoroughbred races after the Florida Legislature’s 2001 deregulation of racing dates. Under that system, Hialeah Park has not been able to get exclusive dates. Thus, it would have been forced to race head-to-head against Gulfstream or Calder.
 
In 2003, the Florida DPMW revoked Hialeah Park’s racing permit, citing that it violated a state law by not holding races for two consecutive years.
 
Hialeah Park opened in 1925. For most of its history, it attracted huge national attention and press coverage for its January to March racing season. In 2007, the property was designated one of the 11 most endangered historic landmarks by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
 
Last August, technology entrepreneur Halsey Minor offered to buy Hialeah Park, with a goal of re-opening it for Thoroughbred racing (see story).
 
Talks fell apart two months later due to a big difference in a possible sales price. Neither Brunetti nor Minor would disclose numbers.

On Feb. 9,  Minor filed a civil suit in a state court in Miami in which he maintains that Brunetti, by not holding racing at Hialeah Park since 2001, is in default on agreements under which he purchased the track in 1978.
 
The suit, in which the City of Hialeah also is a defendant, asks a state circuit  court in Miami, Fla., to “impose a constructive trust on the subject property in favor of the City of Hialeah and for the use and benefit of its citizens.”
 
If the court rules in his favor, Minor said he believes the city would own the historic track. In that situation, he said he would be interested in leasing, rebuilding and re-opening it.
 
After reviewing Minor’s suit, Brunetti refuted its allegations.
 
As of March 18, the city of Hialeah had not filed a response to the suit, said a spokesman for the city’s Mayor Julio Robaina.
 
Hialeah Park is the fifth applicant that has received Florida DPMW approval for a Quarter Horse permit since 2007.
 
The others are: Gretna Racing in Gadsden County; ELH Jefferson in Jefferson County; Debary Real Estate Holding in Volusia County; and Hamilton Downs in Hamilton County. All four are in the northern half of the state.
 
Hamilton Downs, which has late this year as a target, likely will be the first to open.
 
Former Gulfstream presidents David Romanik and Paul Micucci head the ELH Jefferson and Gretna Groups.
 
In late January, Pompano Park called off plans to hold a Quarter Horse meet this year from July 3 to Aug. 15.  But Pompano Park officials said they will consider a Quarter Horse meet during that period in 2010.
 
Those officials cited the overall economy as a reason for not spending approximately $400,000 on a surface conversion this year. 
 

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