Owner: Legislation Key to 'New' Hialeah

Owner: Legislation Key to 'New' Hialeah
Photo: BloodHorse Photo

Hialeah Park probably will begin Quarter Horse racing in 2010 only if the Florida Legislature makes three major changes in state racing laws, the track’s owner John Brunetti said April 15.
 
Those possible changes, all included in bills the Legislature is considering this month, would: set up a system under which Hialeah Park could again hold Thoroughbred races; allow the Hialeah, Fla., track to install slot machines; and return to state regulation of Thoroughbred racing dates.
 
“I doubt that we would start Quarter Horse racing in 2010 without all four approvals, including Quarter Horses,” said Brunetti, whose track last month received state regulators’ approval for a Quarter Horse permit.
 
But two prominent legislators, one a former Hialeah Park executive, said odds appear long that the Legislature will approve all three changes.
 
Rep. Estevan Bovo, a Republican whose district includes the city of Hialeah, said, “I think that what will come out will give John some of the avenues he is looking for to re-open.”
 
The likely roadblock, according to Bovo and Sen. Dennis Jones, is that there appears to be considerable opposition to a return to Florida’s pre-2002 system under which the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering assigned racing dates to Thoroughbred tracks.
 
Jones, a Republican from the St. Petersburg area, is chairman of the Senate Regulated Industries Committee, which has jurisdiction over racing and gaming industry bills. Bovo is a former director of marketing for Hialeah Park, which last held Thoroughbred racing in 2001.
 
The Florida DPMW revoked Hialeah Park’s Thoroughbred permit in 2003, because it went two consecutive years without holding live racing. On March 16, the Florida DPMW issued a Quarter Horse permit to Hialeah Park.
 
A state law requires a Quarter Horse permit holder with an existing facility, such as Hialeah Park, to begin that racing within 12 months of receiving a permit. An official of the Florida DPMW said the law “does not specifically address” whether a permit holder that does not begin racing within 12 months could automatically extend that permit or would have to apply for a new one.
 
A re-opened Hialeah Park “would need slots revenue right away” to provide revenue to help pay for costs of renovating the property and holding a Quarter Horse meet, Brunetti said. Hialeah Park would need a Thoroughbred meet, with exclusive dates, to help generate essential revenue, he said.
 
The Legislature will end its 2009 regular session May 1. Brunetti is among observers who expect that any gaming legislation will not be approved until the final day.
 
Bills under consideration contain these provisions that would directly impact Hialeah Park:
 
* Pari-mutuels, including new Quarter Horse tracks, that are outside Miami-Dade and Broward counties would be able to install Class II bingo-like slot machines. The state tax rate would be 35 percent on those machines which a Senate bills calls “electronic gaming machines.” One bill also would allow Hialeah Park, in Miami-Dade, to have those machines if it has Quarter Horse racing. No county or local votes would be needed for operating pari-mutuels to install the machines.
 
Operating horse and dog tracks and jai-alai frontons in Miami-Dade and Broward can have casinos with Class III slot machines. Gulfstream Park, in Broward, has a casino. Calder Race Course, in Miami-Dade, has said it plans to build one.
 
* Allow a Quarter Horse permit holder to: convert to another pari-mutuel permit; offer simulcast wagering without written consent of all other pari-mutuels within its 50-mile radius; and allow a Quarter Horse permit holder to hold up to 50 percent of its annual races as Thoroughbred races, even without written consent of a Thoroughbred track within a 50-mile radius that is holding races.
 
* End the current system under which Florida Thoroughbred tracks pick their racing dates, rather than applying to the Florida DPMW for approval.
 
Brunetti said he regards that change as vital because it would enable Hialeah Park, if it gains a Thoroughbred permit, to have exclusive days and not race head-to-head with Gulfstream or Calder. Each of those three changes was part of at least one of a half-dozen racing-related bills that were being considered by committees during the week that began April 13.
 
In addition, several bills would permit Quarter Horse permit-holders to hold night racing cards. Several bills would allow pari-mutuels to have card rooms open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Now, they can have those rooms open 12 hours a day, 365 days a year.
 
“Night racing and 24-hour card rooms would help everyone and could help John in his goal of running a profitable operation,” Bovo said. “I agree with him on trying to return to regulation of racing dates. I have guarded optimism that some of the measures that would benefit Hialeah Park will be passed.”
 
Jones said: “In the Senate, I would not expect a lot of support for returning to regulation of racing dates. There is a pulse of ‘let the market rule’ on that.”
 
Jones is the sponsor of a bill that would permit pari-mutuels throughout Florida to have electronic gaming machines.
 
Proposals that would directly impact Hialeah Park and the entire Thoroughbred industry are part of an intensive debate over a gaming compact that Gov. Charlie Crist signed with the Seminole Tribe of Florida in November 2007.

Brunetti said Hialeah Park will not begin any renovations for Quarter Horse racing until the Legislature passes and Crist signs any bills.
 
He estimates it would cost between $10 million and $15 million to repair Hialeah Park’s grandstands and other parts of its property before start of a Quarter Horse meet. A large part of that expenditure would be rebuilding the barn area, he said. Hialeah Park also would have to remove overgrowth from its dirt and turf courses and put in a Quarter Horse surface.
 
Brunetti said that officials of the Florida Quarter Horse Racing Association have told him and his staff that they expect that numerous owners of Florida horses will be interested in racing at Hialeah Park.
 
“But I am sure that we would not resume that planning if we just have Quarter Horse racing,” Brunetti said.
 
He said his goal remains a return of Thoroughbred racing. He estimates that a full rebuilding of the track and its buildings, and adding a casino, would cost about $100 million.
 
“I am looking forward to a full Thoroughbred meet and a full Quarter Horse meet,” Brunetti said.
 
If Hialeah can have that racing and slot machines, Brunetti also hopes to build a retail and commercial center on the 220-acre property.
 
“But we would need to have all of the racing and slots in place before we could move on to the other developments,” he said.
 
Last year, technology entrepreneur Halsey Minor talked with Brunetti about a possible sale of Hialeah Park.
 
After talks broke down, Minor on Feb. 9 filed a civil suit in a state court in Miami. Minor’s suit 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 feels the city would own the historic track. In that situation, he has said he would be interested in leasing, rebuilding and re-opening it.
 
This month, Hialeah Park filed a response that calls the complaint “a sham” and Minor filed an amended complaint. The parties have different interpretations of the requirements of the 1978 sale/lease agreement between Brunetti and the city.

Most Popular Stories