Hialeah Park ended its first Quarter Horse meet Feb. 3, with track owner and chairman John Brunetti Sr. saying it will be up to Florida’s politicians to determine whether the track will hold another meet and what it will be like.
“We need a full package,” he said. “Quarter Horse racing cannot be our only act.”
Brunetti is looking ahead to the Florida Legislature’s two-month general session that begins March 2. He is hopeful the legislature and Gov. Charlie Crist will approve a bill that would allow the Hialeah, Fla., track to build a casino, with Las Vegas-style slot machines, and return to Thoroughbred racing at least on a limited basis.
Last year, they approved a gaming law that included those provisions, provided that Hialeah held a Quarter Horse meet under the permit it obtained last March from the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering. However, the law was not enacted because of a dispute between Crist and the legislature over terms of a gaming compact with the Seminole Tribe of Florida.
That left Brunetti running a meet that proved, as he expected, to be a loss leader toward possibly obtaining more lucrative gaming.
An example was provided by the Feb. 3 turnstile count of 1,007--a figure similar to most of its other weekdays. Precise closing-day handle numbers were not readily available.
A review of previous days’ data by The Blood-Horse showed average daily all-sources handle of about $138,000. That included wagers on track, at about 100 racetracks and OTB outlets outside Florida and Advance Deposit Wagering Services. Prior to the meet, Brunetti said he expected average daily handle would be about $200,000.
A review of Hialeah data from Equibase showed the track paying total purses of about $3.5 million for 40 race days--most with eight races. That is less than the $4 million Hialeah guaranteed to pay in its contract with the Florida Quarter Horse Racing Association.
Hialeah officials are scheduled to meet with representatives of the Florida QHRA and some out-of-state horsemen on Feb. 8.
Brunetti and Dr. Stephen Fisch, a veterinarian who is president of the Florida QHRA, each said they expect $4 million will be paid into the purse account.
“This was a good meet, especially considering there was only a short time to promote it before opening,” Fisch said.
The meet was the first racing at Hialeah since 2001 when it held its most recent Thoroughbred meet. In 2002, Florida deregulated Thoroughbred dates. That forced Hialeah to either run at the same time as Gulfstream Park or Calder Race Course, or not hold races. Hialeah did not hold meets in 2002 and 2003. The Florida DPMW then revoked its Thoroughbred permit, under a state that requires it to take that action if a Thoroughbred track does not hold races for two consecutive years.
Brunetti, who has owned Hialeah since 1977, said he remains hopeful the legislature will pass a law granting it a new Thoroughbred permit.
That could still be a longshot bid, said Rep. Esteban Bovo, R-Hialeah, who noted the rivalry among racetracks and jai-alai frontons in the Miami area and around the state.
“My goal and the goal of many others (legislators) is to get something passed similar to last year’s bill,” said Bovo, a former Hialeah Park marketing director.
He said he expects support for last year’s provisions that would have helped Hialeah.
“John ran the full 40 days, despite obstacles, and sent a clear message by investing money back into Hialeah Park,” Bovo said. “I hope the legislature will take full notice of that.”
According to its preliminary filing with the Florida DPMW, Hialeah plans to hold its next Quarter Horse races Dec. 17, 2010. That would be the start of 42-day meet, running through Feb. 27, 2011.
Brunetti said he would like to run that meet “if the legislature gives us the other opportunities. Quarter Horse racing cannot be our main event, especially when others in our market have simulcasting and casinos.”
For its first meet, Hialeah was eligible to carry simulcasts only of Quarter Horse tracks from other states. It did not take any signals.If it races Quarter Horses in 2011, it would also be able to carry various Greyhound, harness and jai-alai signals. But it would need approval from Calder, Gulfstream and other South Florida pari-mutuels to bring in Thoroughbred signals.
Gulfstream and Calder are among the five South Florida pari-mutuels that have casinos with Las Vegas-style slot machines.
The scene at Hialeah Feb. 3 and most other days was a contrast to opening day Nov. 28. On that Saturday, the estimated attendance was 26,874 for the widely anticipated event of Hialeah re-opening.
On Feb. 3 and several other weekdays, several fans told The Blood-Horse they came to Hialeah for its history and not to bet on Quarter Horses.
“This is our first time here, and we came to see the flamingos and what it looks like, more than the quarter horses,” said Bill Lobuzzetta of Pompano Beach, Fla., who was at Hialeah on closing day with his wife Judy and several friends.
Fans who stayed for Feb. 3’s ninth and final race saw a victory by 24-1 win shot Run Likea Streaker.