If John Brunetti gets the answers he is hoping for from Florida regulators, he will be ready to start turning Hialeah Park into what he calls “a year-round, full-option gaming and entertainment destination” that would include a casino and the return of Thoroughbred racing.
A law Florida Gov. Charlie Crist signed April 29 allows Hialeah to have a casino with Las Vegas-style slot machines and, under its Quarter Horse permit, have up to 50% of its races for Thoroughbreds. The law, which also has benefits for Florida’s Thoroughbred tracks and other pari-mutuels, takes effect July 1.
“Our lobbyists and attorneys are trying to find out exactly what we can do,” Brunetti told The Blood-Horse May 12. “There is a great deal of discussion on what is in the law. There are things that we need to get clear before we can begin work on anything new.”
Brunetti said his questions include whether Hialeah could run Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse races on the same days. The answer appears to be “yes,” according to several pari-mutuel industry officials. He also has questions about when Hialeah would be eligible to have a casino.
Hialeah has applied to hold a 22-day Quarter-Horse meet, which can include Thoroughbred races, from Nov. 26, 2010, through Jan. 2, 2011. Officials of the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering said holding that meet would make Hialeah eligible to open a casino in 2011.
But Brunetti, Hialeah’s owner and president, said he is still in the early stages of getting answers from the Florida DPMW.
“I am a (real estate) developer, but I need to find out what we can do before we can apply for building permits,” he said. “We would like to do these things. But we are in the middle of a jungle with this (new law).”
Any expansion at the historic track just outside Miami would follow an initial 40-day Quarter Horse-only meet it held from last Nov. 28 to Feb. 3.
Hialeah held its most recent Thoroughbred meet in 2001. After it did not hold racing in 2002 and 2003, the Florida DPMW revoked its Thoroughbred permit. That agency acted under a state law that requires license revocation if a Thoroughbred track does not hold racing for two consecutive years.
Hialeah obtained its Quarter Horse permit in March 2009. Holding its 2009-10 meet would have made it eligible for a casino under a gaming law the Florida legislature passed and Crist signed in June 2009. But the law was not enacted after the Seminole Tribe of Florida objected to some of its provisions regarding its seven Florida casinos.
This year, the legislature passed and Crist signed a bill with identical provisions as in 2009 for Hialeah and other pari-mutuel facilities. They also approved a gaming compact for the Seminoles, which officials of that Tribe signed early in May.
Unlike in 2009, enactment of the law’s provisions pertaining to pari-mutuel outlets cannot be impacted by Seminole-related developments, according to officials in the office of Florida House Speaker Larry Cretul, a Republican from the Ocala area.
The Seminole compact needs approval from the National Indian Gaming Commission, which has until the week of June 14 to act. That commission can approve the compact, reject it, or not take action. In that last situation, the compact would take effect.
Brunetti had hoped a 2010 bill would include permission for Hialeah to regain a Thoroughbred permit. It did not, and he said he will continue to ask the Florida DPMW to restore that permit.
Brunetti spent $12 million to renovate Hialeah and estimates it had a $3 million operating loss during its Quarter Horse meet. Hialeah held those races during months when nearby Calder Casino & Race Course and later Gulfstream Park held race meets.
Since the end of Hialeah’s meet, workers have been maintaining the refurbished portions of the grandstand, paddock area, and dirt track. They have taken down the temporary stalls that were in the track’s former barn area.
“We need to get our questions resolved before I will spend any more money or make more improvements,” Brunetti said.
One of his concerns is whether Hialeah, unlike in 2009-10, will be able to bring in simulcasts of Thoroughbreds and other pari-mutuel sports in 2010-11 and beyond under its Quarter Horse license. The answer is “yes,” with some qualifications, according to the Florida DPMW.
When Hialeah is running its live meet, it will be able to bring in simulcasts, probably including Thoroughbreds, from tracks in Florida and other states.
During periods when it is not holding races, Hialeah will be eligible to bring in live and imported signals from other Florida pari-mutuel facilities. But it would require permission from Calder and Gulfstream to take those tracks’ live and imported Thoroughbred signals. Working out such arrangements might prove difficult, considering Hialeah’s past disputes with those two tracks over racing dates and other issues.
During its first Quarter Horse meet, Hialeah sent its signal to about 100 outlets, including advance deposit wagering services.
Brunetti said he has met with officials of several casino companies that could become partners in developing a Hialeah casino. “I have told them that we need to resolve the issues of what we can do, and I will then get back to them,” he said.
For the track’s first Quarter Horse meet, the Florida Quarter Horse Racing Association made arrangements for trainers from Oklahoma, Texas, and other states to send horses.
“I have always said that we feel it would be OK to run our horses in a meet at Hialeah that is 50% Thoroughbred, and trainers agree,” said Dr. Steven Fisch, a Tallahassee, Fla., veterinarian who is president of the Florida QHRA. “We felt the treatment we received and everything else was favorable in the first meet, except for a squabble over total purses that we later resolved.”