Eliot Schechter

Horses Arrive For Reopening of Hialeah

Horses began arriving Nov. 12 atthe Florida racetrack

Quarter Horses began arriving at Hialeah Park Nov. 12 and within several days they will begin training for the track’s 40-day meet that will begin Nov. 28.

Meanwhile, city of Hialeah officials said they have issued all building and fire permits that Hialeah Park requested for its meet. That process was completed early in the week of Nov. 9.
The Hialeah, Fla., track will have all three floors of its clubhouse open, including several of its restaurants, beginning Nov. 28, said John J. Brunetti, Hialeah Park’s president and owner. The grandstand portion of Hialeah’s building, well known for its Mediterranean-style architecture, will not be re-opened for the Quarter Horse meet that will run through Feb. 2, 2010.
Hialeah is still working on renovating its Paddock Pavilion Building, where it will have a poker room. Brunetti expects Hialeah’s poker room will be open by mid-December. Florida laws do not allow Hialeah to carry any simulcasting of Thoroughbreds or other pari-mutuel events during its first meet.
On a larger front, Brunetti is still waiting for enactment of a pending Florida law, with provisions that include allowing Hialeah to return to Thoroughbred racing on a limited basis and have a casino with Las Vegas-style slot machines.
“If they resolve that, it will enable us to move forward on our plans for a second phase (rebuilding),“ Brunetti said. “For now, we are excited about how much we have already done. We will be ready (on Nov. 28).”
Hialeah opened in 1925 and for decades was known worldwide for its winter racing.
Hialeah held its last Thoroughbred meet in 2001. Brunetti then stopped holding meets, rather than run head-to-head against Miami-area rivals Gulfstream Park or Calder Race Course. In 2004, the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering revoked Hialeah’s permit because it did not hold races for two consecutive years.
On March 16, 2009, the Florida DPMW issued a Quarter Horse permit for Hialeah.
This year, the Florida legislature passed and Gov. Charlie Crist signed a gaming bill that would allow Hialeah to have a casino with slot machines if it holds two Quarter Horse meets of 20 days or more during two consecutive calendar years.
That pending law, upon enactment, would allow Hialeah to have Thoroughbred races for up to 50% of its overall race cards--without approval from Gulfstream or Calder.
Hialeah will not consider having Thoroughbred races at least until its planned second meet, which would be late in 2010, Brunetti said.
The pending gaming law also includes provisions on operations of the Seminole Tribe of Florida’s seven casinos.
Enactment is being delayed because of a dispute between the legislature and the Seminoles, who are seeking more expansion and exclusivity on some casino gaming than the pending law would permit.
Leaders of the legislature are considering a special session for next month, with the now-stalled gaming law among possible issues. But Rep. Esteban Bovo (R-Hialeah), said he does not expect Crist to call a special session unless legislative leaders have reached pre-agreements that would lead to passage of bills.
Bovo, a former Hialeah Park marketing director, and Marc Dunbar, an attorney whose gaming clients include Gulfstream, both said a growing number of Senators and House members are favoring what Bovo calls “bifurcation” on gaming issues.
In that scenario, the legislature would pass a bill on pari-mutuel issues--with most of the provisions from the earlier bill including those that directly impact Hialeah. The legislature then might re-consider the Seminole issues during its two-month regular session that begins next March, Bovo said.
Dunbar, a partner in the Pennington Law Firm near Tallahassee, said he expects the legislature would pass a stand-alone pari-mutuels bill this year or in 2010.
Brunetti has told The Blood-Horse that Hialeah expects to lose $15 million or more preparing for and running its first Quarter Horse meet.
Hialeah has put up almost 1,000 temporary stalls for Quarter Horses. Its first Condition Book, through Dec. 15, shows it running nine races on each of 12 days. 
The Florida Quarter Horse Racing Association has contract that guarantees that Hialeah will deposit $4 million into its horsemen’s bookkeeper account with an average of $400,000 per week for 10 weeks. Brunetti said he expects he will pay them with funds from Hialeah Park and his real estate business.
A large number of the horses at Hialeah’s meet will be shipped in by owners from Texas, Oklahoma, and several other states, said Dr. Steve Fisch, a veterinarian who is president of the Florida QHRA.
On Nov. 11, Hialeah announced that Paul Jones, perennially one of the leading national Quarter Horse trainers, will have 26 stalls.
The Florida QHRA’s research indicates the meet could include as few as 28 Florida-breds.
“We have not had Quarter Horse racing in Florida, and the meet at Hialeah will provide a big incentive for our breeding industry,” Fisch said.
Florida’s most recent Quarter Horse meet was in 1991 at harness track Pompano Park in Pompano Beach.