Eliot Schechter

Hialeah Park Seeks to Meet Purse Guarantee

The Hialeah Quarter Horse meet may end with unfinished business.

Hialeah Park is entering the final two weeks of its first Quarter Horse meet with pari-mutuel handle owner John Brunetti calls “a disappointment,” and with an apparent need to play catch-up on its guarantee of $4 million in purses.

Through Jan. 19, the Florida racetrack had average daily all-sources handle of about $142,000 for its first 32 race days, according to a Blood-Horse review of Equibase data. Hialeah began its 40-day meet Nov. 28 and will end it Feb. 2. Before the start of the meet, Brunetti said he hoped all-sources handle would be about $200,000 per day.

The data also shows that Hialeah’s total purses have been about $2.75 million for 32 days. Its contract with the Florida Quarter Horse Racing Association calls for it to contribute $4 million, an average of $100,000 per day, to the purse account by the end of its meet. Thus far, the daily average has been about $86,000.

Without giving details for the final two weeks, Brunetti said Hialeah will pay the full amount for a meet he has called “a means to an end.” He is hopeful the Florida government this year will amend state racing laws and allow Hialeah, because it is fulfilling terms of its Quarter Horse permit, to open a casino with Las Vegas-style slot machines and again hold Thoroughbred races. Those provisions were part of a 2009 law that was passed but not enacted.

Hialeah is sending its signal to about 100 locations outside of Florida. They are primarily Thoroughbred tracks, Quarter Horse tracks, and account wagering services. From Jan. 16-19, Hialeah had average daily handle of about $129,000; about 70% was wagered off track. Hialeah’s estimated average daily attendance was 1,853 during that period.

“It has been a challenge to get the public involved with a new sport,” Brunetti said. “I am disappointed in the public’s response, but not in what we have done. We opened on relatively short notice in a competitive market. In the future, maybe we could start a meet earlier in the year or later.”

Hialeah’s competition for gaming and entertainment dollars from Miami-area fans has included the Thoroughbred meets at Calder Race Course and Gulfstream Park, the Miami Dolphins, and other televised football games.

“We will pay the $4 million,” Brunetti said of the purse account. “Some are wondering if we will not pay the full amount. We will make it right.”

Dr. Steven Fisch, president of the Florida QHRA, said: “I am expecting the $4 million will be paid out.” The contract calls for the Florida QHRA to receive 6% of purses.

Hialeah’s condition book for the final eight days shows purses of $775,300. That includes $206,800 for Jan. 31, which will feature $100,000 South Florida Quarter Horse Derby.

That would bring total purses to more than $3.5 million. Neither Brunetti nor Fisch, a Tallahassee veterinarian, would discuss details of how they expect a shortfall would be made up.

As a first-year Florida pari-mutuel permit-holder, Hialeah cannot import simulcasts other than Quarter Horse races. It is not bringing in any signals.

Hialeah’s purse structure is high for a track that has a Quarter Horse-only meet and does not have on-site simulcasting and/or a casino.

Hialeah agreed to pay $4 million in purses to attract Quarter Horse owners and trainers from other states, including Oklahoma and Texas.

Florida’s last Quarter Horse meet was in 1991, at harness track Pompano Park. Thus, the state’s Quarter Horse industry has been focusing on show horses and has a relatively small number of Florida-bred racing Quarter Horses. Fisch said the Florida QHRA hopes the Hialeah meet and prospects of more Quarter Horse tracks in the state will provide incentives for breeding of racehorses.

Fisch estimated that Quarter Horse trainers and other horsemen “as a whole will spend at least $4 million for this meet” on travel to and expenses in the Miami area. “Everyone, including the trainers, likes Hialeah and the way they have been treated,” Fisch said. “It was a good first meet. Considering the timing, it was a super meet.”

He referred to the limited time Hialeah had to promote the meet, after receiving approval from the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering Oct. 27, 2009.

Hialeah has not held Thoroughbred racing since 2001, and a 2002 state law deregulated racing dates. Hialeah did not run in 2002 or 2003 because Brunetti believed it was not feasible to race at the same time as Gulfstream Park or Calder Casino & Race Course. The Florida DPMW then revoked Hialeah’s permit, noting it violated a state law by not racing for two consecutive years.

During the first half of 2009, the Florida legislature passed and Gov, Charlie Crist signed a law that would give Hialeah, as a Quarter Horse track, permission to build a casino.  The law also would have allowed Hialeah in future meets to run up to half its races as Thoroughbred races, without permission from Gulfstream or Calder.

The bill was not enacted because of a dispute between Crist and the legislature over terms of a gaming compact that Crist and the Seminole Tribe of Florida signed last Aug, 31. That compact would have amended the pending law by allowing the Seminoles additional expansion of blackjack and baccarat at their casinos in Florida.

On Jan. 14, a House committee on gaming said it would not approve the compact. The committee said it will consider a 2010 bill that would have pari-mutuel provisions similar to the bill the legislature passed last year.

The legislature will hold its regular session from March 2 through April 30.

“They are starting to draft bills,” Brunetti said. “We are talking with people, and are again hoping that something will get done.”

“I can’t answer that now, because it is still very early,” he said when asked if Hialeah would continue to hold race meets only with Quarter Horses and without prospects for a casino. “The Quarter Horse people have all liked what we have done during this meet, and we look forward to continuing with them.”

He said Hialeah would like to be allowed to hold future mixed meets, with Thoroughbred races and Quarter Horse races. Brunetti said he spent about $12 million to renovate and reopen Hialeah, and expects an operating loss between $1 million and $3 million for the current meet.