Hialeah Sees New Thoroughbred Opportunity

Hialeah Sees New Thoroughbred Opportunity
Photo: Tom LaMarra
Racing at Hialeah Park

"What about Hialeah?"

That question was on the minds of many who followed the recently settled Gulfstream/Calder dispute over Thoroughbred racing dates in South Florida.

The answer is that the agreement between Gulfstream Park and Calder Casino & Race Course does not have an immediate spot for Hialeah Park, which has not had live Thoroughbred racing since 2001.

But Hialeah Park owner John Brunetti remains determined to bring Thoroughbreds back to his famous racetrack, where the main attractions are now a casino that opened last August and live Quarter Horse racing. Brunetti is hoping to stage a comeback through a deal with his one-time nemesis Gulfstream. The agreement with Calder has in effect given Gulfstream control over South Florida racing dates.

"I would welcome a call from Frank Stronach (Gulfstream chairman) or from Tim Ritvo (Gulfstream president) to talk and set up a meeting on how Hialeah could become part of a new rotation among the three tracks," Brunetti said.

Ritvo said Gulfstream remains open to the idea of a Hialeah return to Thoroughbred racing and "would like to find some ways to work with John in his goals." He emphasized that any possible changes from the Gulfstream-Calder plan and schedule would "be in future years."

Gulfstream will have 190 racing days during the 12 months that end June 30, 2015. Ritvo said it needs all of them to generate revenues to help pay for operations and future expansion.

Under a six-year agreement that began this July 1, Gulfstream's parent The Stronach Group is leasing and operating Calder's racing business. Churchill Downs Inc. continues to own Calder and operate its casino. The companies have not disclosed a price for the transaction.

The agreement immediately ended the head-to-head weekend racing the two tracks began in July 2013 and had been scheduled to continue through June 2015. The amended schedule, approved July 1 by the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering, has Gulfstream racing 44 weeks during the 2014-15 state fiscal year that ends June 30, 2015.

Calder will have 40 race days between Oct. 7 and Nov. 30. That is the minimum number of annual dates it needs to retain its casino license.

"I am glad for both tracks that they received approval from the state to stop running head-to-head," Brunetti said. "It was no surprise that many of the fields were small. What happened shows that it cannot work and that it is not good for Florida racing."

Then, he explained why he feels a return of Hialeah would be good for Thoroughbred racing in Florida.

"It doesn't make the best sense for the state to have one track running as long as 10 months and have a track that doesn't want racing with the other two months," he said in reference to Calder. "Gulfstream Park wants Thoroughbred racing. So does Hialeah Park, and we are ready."

Calder is in Miami Gardens, Fla., eight miles west of Gulfstream in Hallandale Beach. Hialeah is 11 miles south of Calder and 14 miles southwest of Gulfstream.

Hialeah's main track is ready for Thoroughbreds, and it is prepared to refurbish its once-renowned turf course, according to track officials. The racetrack's current license is for Quarter Horses but it is allowed to run as many as half of its races for Thoroughbreds. The annual Quarter Horse meet, which began in FY10, made Hialeah eligible to operate a casino.

Brunetti has not used his option to offer some Thoroughbred races because there has been no period when Hialeah would not face competition from Gulfstream or Calder.

Next year, members of the Florida Legislature from Hialeah and elsewhere in the Miami area will again seek passage of a bill that would grant Hialeah a new Thoroughbred permit and license. Hialeah's supporters also will seek a return of the pre-2002 system under which Florida regulators determined the race dates for Thoroughbred tracks. Florida Thoroughbred tracks now pick their own race dates with typically routine approval from the Florida DPMW.

Prior to their race dates dispute that began in 2011, Calder and Gulfstream informally divided the calendar and did not leave a spot for Hialeah, which was struggling financially and—unlike its two rivals—was not part of a racetrack conglomerate.

The Florida DPMW revoked Hialeah's Thoroughbred permit in 2003 after it violated a state law by not offering live racing for two straight years.

Almost everywhere Brunetti goes, he said people tell him they would like to see Thoroughbred racing return to Hialeah.

"I tell them to contact their favorite (Florida) legislator," he said.

Passage of bills on horse racing issues, however, is never easy in Florida.

"Hialeah will throw its resources around in Tallahassee, but the (legislative) leadership is usually indifferent at best to horse racing and gaming," said Amanda Simmons Luby, a partner in the Orlando office of law firm Shutts & Bowen and head of its equine law group. She pointed out that some Florida House and Senate members are opposed to any expansion of gambling. A new Hialeah license would likely fit in that category.

So, Hialeah's best chance for Thoroughbred racing might be a deal with Gulfstream.

One way could come through the Florida DPMW again bending some rules and allowing Hialeah to lease and run Gulfstream dates several weeks a year. That would give Gulfstream's main track and turf course a respite and help Hialeah, which has become an ally in the market. Brunetti said he spoke with Ritvo several times this spring for updates on the talks with Calder.

Both have described the Gulfstream-Hialeah relationship as cordial. Brunetti is at Gulfstream many Saturdays, sometimes to watch horses from his Red Oak Stable race live or via simulcast.

In recent years, Gulfstream and Hialeah have supported each other, or stayed neutral, on legislative and legal issues concerning slot machines and racing schedules. The driving force, in part, was that both had periodic animosities with Calder.

Although Gulfstream is not required by law to send its simulcast signal and pre-6 p.m. imported Thoroughbred signals to Hialeah, it does so on a year-round basis and it takes Hialeah's signal. That cooperation is vastly different from the 1980s and 1990s when Hialeah and Gulfstream competed annually to gain regulators' approval for the prime winter racing dates.

In the past, Brunetti also has had numerous disputes with the Florida Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association over purse issues. But Florida HBPA president Phil Combest said "the horsemen are open to the idea of racing at Hialeah, but it would have to be under the right conditions."

Combest said that would include Hialeah either building new stables or having an arrangement to bring horses in to race from other tracks or training sites.

Hialeah each year puts up temporary stalls for its Quarter Horse meet, scheduled for Dec. 26, 2014, to March 2, 2015, with racing Thursday through Sunday each week.

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