Hialeah Park has begun its fifth consecutive Quarter Horse racing season and is preparing for a year in which it might have its biggest chance yet to regain a Thoroughbred racing license.
The Florida racetrack opened its 40-day meet Nov.29. It will have Quarter Horse racing through Feb. 23, 2014, mostly on a Friday-through-Sunday schedule. Meanwhile, Hialeah Park chairman and owner John Brunetti is continuing his efforts to bring Thoroughbred racing back to his track for the first time since 2001.
He is hopeful there will be strong support in the Florida legislature next year for bills that would give Hialeah a new Thoroughbred racing license.
"Several (Miami-Hialeah area) members have been gaining support from others around the state who have seen what we have done," Brunetti said. He believes Hialeah Park "has earned some points" among House and Senate members by establishing Florida's first long-term Quarter Horse racing program and with its new slot-machine casino.
Hialeah Park opened its casino Aug. 14. In its first three months it has generated $4.9 million in tax revenue for the state. Hialeah Park slots players put $252.2 million into the machines during the three months from Aug. 14-Nov. 10, according to Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering statistics.
It is expected that Rep. Eduardo Gonzalez, a Republican who represents Hialeah, will sponsor a bill that would grant the track a Thoroughbred license. He couldn't be immediately reached for comment.
Any issues regarding Hialeah Park could be part of what several of the legislature's leaders expect will be an overhaul of pari-mutuel and gaming laws. The legislature will hold its regular session from March 4-May 2, 2014.
The Florida DPMW revoked Hialeah Park's Thoroughbred license in 2003 after it did not have racing in 2002 and 2003. A state law authorizes regulator to revoke licenses that are not used during two consecutive years.
Hialeah Park already has the option to run Thoroughbred races on a limited basis. Under its Quarter Horse license, it can hold a mixed meet with up to half its races as Thoroughbred races.
Prior to the opening of this season's Quarter Horse meet, Brunetti again said it is unlikely the track will have Thoroughbred races if it has to run head-to-head against either Gulfstream Park or Calder Casino & Race Course.
"With what the other two are doing, it might be hard to find a spot," he said.
Brunetti was referring to the weekend head-to-head racing his Miami-area neighbors Gulfstream and Calder began in July 2013. Unless the two tracks settle their differences over long-term racing dates, they are scheduled to continue head-to-head racing through the end of next June.
"I am not someone who is willing to lose money just to make a point." Brunetti said.
In 1989 Hialeah Park experienced the losses that can hit a track during head-to-head racing. While running against Calder, Hialeah Park found it difficult to fill races and was trounced in pari-mutuel handle. State regulators gave Hialeah Park permission to cancel its meet after 29 racing days.
Hialeah Park stopped racing a year after the legislature established a system under which Thoroughbred tracks select their own race dates. That has made it difficult for the track to find a period when it does not have to run against Gulfstream or Calder.
Brunetti said he hopes the Gulfstream-Calder dispute will increase the chances the legislature will include a return to regulation of racing dates in a gaming bill. As it seeks a new Thoroughbred license or an open spot for running Thoroughbreds as part of a mixed meet, Hialeah Park could have Gulfstream's support.
"We have what I would call an informal gentlemen's agreement with Gulfstream where one of us would not do anything to hurt the other," Brunetti said.
"I think our relationship with Hialeah is good," Gulfstream president Tim Ritvo said. "If anyone shows a strong interest in saving and helping racing in Florida, like we do, we would be willing to work with them. John appears to be showing that interest."
On the other hand, Calder and Hialeah Park are long-time adversaries.
For a Thoroughbred meet, Hialeah Park would need a purse contract with the Florida Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association. In the 1990s that organization had a series of disputes with Hialeah Park over contract issues and the timing of payments of purse money.
Now, some horsemen are interested in the prospect of racing again at Hialeah Park, said Phil Combest, a trainer/owner who serves as president of the Florida HBPA.
He said the Florida HBPA would require Hialeah Park to build a new stable area, replacing the temporary stalls it has for Quarter Horses.