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Hialeah Opening Second Quarter Horse Meet

Plans for Thoroughbred races and a casino being made for the 2011-12 season.

When Hialeah Park opens its Quarter Horse meet Dec. 3, one of the big attractions will be a 12% takeout on all wagers—possibly the lowest of any track in the country. A year from now, however, track owner and chairman John Brunetti is hoping to be celebrating the start of the season with a new casino and a limited return of Thoroughbred racing.

The Hialeah, Fla., track is allowed by state law to card up to half its races for Thoroughbreds, but Brunetti wants to wait. Citing the lack of permanent stables, Brunetti said Hialeah does not even plan to permit Thoroughbreds to train there during its 2010-11 meet.

“We don’t plan to have any Thoroughbred races this meet,” Brunetti said. “We want to have this meet just for the Quarter Horse people. We could add Thoroughbreds next season, when we hope to have the casino.”

This year's 24-day meet is Hialeah's second consecutive Quarter Horse meet. Racing will be held Fridays through Sundays until Jan. 23, 2011.

In 2009 an expectedly large crowd of more than 25,000 turned out Nov. 28 for Hialeah’s inaugural Quarter Horse races. They wanted to witness the return of live horse racing to the historic track that once raced Thoroughbreds exclusively but had not held a live race since May 22, 2001.

Because the novelty has worn off, Hialeah during this year’s meet will offer a series of to-be-determined side events and promotions for fans.  It also will have a 12% takeout on all bets, which track officials say is the lowest “of any track in the country.”

“This will be part of a continuing program to educate people about our Quarter Horse racing and keep them interested,” Brunetti said.

Casino dreams

Hialeah's interest in a casino has attracted a lot of attention from other South Florida pari-mutuel  businesses. Calder Casino & Race Course and two other Miami-area pari-mutuel facilitites are challenging in court a provision of a 2010 Florida law that permits Hialeah to have a casino with Las Vegas-style slot machines.

Calder and co-plaintiffs Miami Jai-Alai and Magic City Casino, a Greyhound track, maintain the provision is impermissible because a 2004 voter-approved state constitutional amendment allows casinos only at the seven pari-mutuel facilities in Miami-Dade and Broward counties that held pari-mutuel events in 2002 and 2003. Hialeah did not hold horse racing or other pari-mutuel events either year.

On Nov. 22 Judge James Shelfer of the Second Judicial Circuit Court in Leon County issued a ruling from the bench that is in effect a first round victory for Hialeah. Shelfer said the Hialeah-related provision of Florida’s 2010 gaming law is not unconstitutional under Florida law because the 2004 constitutional amendment did not have language that would forever restrict casinos to only the seven specified facilities.

Shelfer did not rule on three other counts in the suit. As of Nov. 29, the court’s website did not show any subsequent hearing dates or scheduled rulings.

“This (ruling) means the legislature acted properly in 2010,” said Brunetti, who attended the hearing in Tallahassee. “We are pleased, because many people feel this is the most important issue in the case.”

Calder, a subsidiary of Churchill Downs Inc., and MI Developments' Gulfstream Park are among five southeast Florida pari-mutuel outlets that have casinos with Las Vegas-style slot machines.

Julie Koenig, CDI vice president of corporate communications said: “At this time, we are reviewing Judge Shelfer’s decision and evaluating our options and next steps. Beyond that, we cannot comment on the status of the case.”

Even though other counts of the suit still need to be decided, Brunetti said he is proceeding with plans to reconstruct the north grandstand side of the track and turn it into a casino he hopes to open in late 2011.  That side of the building was closed, and the south side (clubhouse) was open for Hialeah’s 2009-10 meet.

On Nov. 23, a Blood-Horse reporter saw that some clearing had been done on the grandstand’s ground floor. Otherwise a massive amount of work appears to be needed in that area, which was cordoned off from fans during the last meet.

Renovations will be done throughout the upcoming race meet but not during training or racing hours, Brunetti said. “We want the fans to see the progress and see that we are committed to building a casino,” he said.

Brunetti said he has had preliminary talks with several gaming companies, which he would not identify, that are potential partners for a Hialeah casino.

Upcoming meet

As a second-year operator of a Quarter Horse permit, Hialeah is eligible to take Thoroughbred simulcast signals—provided host tracks Calder and later Gulfstream give it permission. Hialeah general manager Randy Soth said he has contacted both tracks but has not gotten either’s permission, nor does he expect it. There are long-standing animosities between Hialeah and Calder and Gulfstream over issues that include division of the racing year prior to Florida’s 2002 deregulation of Thoroughbred race dates.

Unlike its first meet, Hialeah will bring in simulcasts from Quarter Horse tracks in Louisiana and New Mexico.

A Blood-Horse review of Equibase charts shows that Hialeah had average daily all-sources handle of about $138,000 for its 2009-10 meet. Most days offered eight races. The handle numbers included bets ontrack and from about 100 simulcast outlets.

About two-thirds of the last meet’s betting came via Hialeah's export signal, Soth said. He and Brunetti, both noting they are realistic, said they expect only a moderate increase in total handle.

For Hialeah’s first Quarter Horse meet, takeout rates ranged from 18% to 27%. Soth anticipates the 12% takeout will generate some additional on-site betting. In addition, Hialeah and the Florida Quarter Horse Racing Association will have more on-site seminars for fans.

Several simulcast outlets are not taking Hialeah’s signal in its second season because of the economics of a 12% takeout, Soth said. But Hialeah expects to have about 120 outlets. Unlike in its first meet, Hialeah can send its signal to pari-mutuel outlets in Florida.

Prospects of generating attendance and betting are hurt by the fact Hialeah will again compete directly with its two neighboring Thoroughbred tracks. Calder will end its meet Jan. 4, and Gulfstream will open the following day.

Most horses at Hialeah will be from southwestern states. The Florida QHRA hopes ongoing Hialeah meets will be a spur to the breeding of more Florida-breds for racing and the opening of several other Quarter Horse tracks in Florida, said Dr. Steve Fisch, a Tallahassee veterinarian who is the association’s president.

“We have a good six-year purse agreement, and we are confident about our relationship with Hialeah going into this meet,” Fisch said. In a repeat of its first meet, Hialeah will pay average purses of $100,000  per day under an agreement with the Florida QHRA.

The Dec. 3 card has eight races with $85,100 in purses. Hialeah has 864 stalls, and Soth said he expects to have a full capacity of horses by the start of the meet.

The track will be dark Dec. 25, and have live racing Monday, Dec, 27. First post time will be 2:05 p.m. EST each day, except for 12:35 p.m. Dec. 4 and Jan. 23.