Hialeah Starts Clearing the Way for Racing

Florida track prepares for Quarter Horse meet.

Unlike a year ago at this time, you can stand at the rail at Hialeah Park and see the lake in the infield and the familiar flamingos.

You also are next to the dirt track that Hialeah Park president and owner John J. Brunetti says could be ready for Quarter Horses before mid-October.

In preparation for a Quarter Horse meet, which Brunetti hopes to begin on Nov. 28 as a possible means to a more glamorous end, a team directed by vice president of operations Dennis Testa has cleared weeds from Hialeah’s historic track. It also has cut the overgrowth from the turf course.

But after eight years without racing, combined with damage from several hurricanes, the once stylish clubhouse still needs repairs and sprucing up to gain the city of Hialeah, Fla.’s permission to re-open.

"That will come next," Brunetti told a Blood-Horse reporter who visited Hialeah Park on Sept. 30. "We are moving ahead daily.�@ Like they say, ‘on a wing and a prayer.’ If we get�@ approval for dates, we will run the full 40 days no matter what happens with the legislature (this fall)."

As of Oct. 1, the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering was reviewing Hialeah Park’s applications to hold 40 days of Quarter Horse racing from Nov. 28 through next Feb. 2. Hialeah Park filed separate applications for late 2009 and early 2010.

Hialeah Park filed for those dates on Sept. 21. The Florida DPMW has 90 days from the application date to review and then approve or reject the applications.

Brunetti hopes that holding that meet would enable Hialeah Park to also return to Thoroughbred racing, on a limited basis, and open a potentially lucrative casino with Class III Las Vegas style slot machines.

Getting those permissions depends on the outcome of now-stalled negotiations among the Florida legislature, Gov. Charlie Crist and the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

This year’s legislature passed and Crist signed a bill that allows Hialeah to hold as many as half its races with Thoroughbreds and to have a casino--both contingent on it running Quarter Horse meets in two consecutive calendar years. A Hialeah casino would have Class III Las Vegas-style slot machines.

But that law, which also has benefits for some other Florida Thoroughbred businesses and for the Seminoles, will take effect only if�@Crist, the legislature and the Seminoles agree to a compact with rules for the Seminoles’ seven Florida casinos. (Related story "Hialeah Park Files Applications for Meets")

The biggest stumbling block is a key section of a compact Crist and the Seminoles signed on Aug. 31. That agreement, unlike this year‘s gaming law, would allow the Seminoles to stop paying part of their gaming revenues to the state if any pari-mutuels outside Miami-Dade and Broward counties are permitted to have any casino gaming.

Gulfstream Park, in Broward, has had a casino with slot machines since November 2006.�@Calder Race Course, which plans to open a casino with slots next January, and Hialeah, are in Miami-Dade.

Hialeah last March 16 received a Quarter Horse permit from the Florida DPMW. Once it begins that racing, it can have a card room open 12 hours a day year-round. Hialeah can have Quarter Horses and cards even if the law that gives it a path to Thoroughbreds and slot machines does not take effect.

The card room would be in the Flamingo Pavilion building, adjacent to the paddock area. Workers are in early stages of renovating that space.

Several years after Hialeah’s last Thoroughbred meet, held in 2001, Brunetti had the barns torn down on the west end of the 206-acre property. Over several years, the former barn area became overgrown with grass. Workers cut that grass late this summer.

"We will grade it in early October, and start putting up the stalls for horses that will arrive in early November," Brunetti said.

In an agreement with the Florida Quarter Horse Racing Association, Hialeah Park will pay full costs of putting up and maintaining 1,000 temporary stalls.

Hialeah Park also will pay all of the purses for its planned first Quarter Horse meet. Under its application, it would hold 40 race dates with eight races per day.�@ Hialeah Park has pledged to pay $100,000 day in purses.

"That comes to $4 million, and it is one reason I said we would lose $15 million or more in preparing for and running these dates," Brunetti said. He said the costs would be paid by his family, which has real estate holdings in several states in addition to Hialeah Park.

Brunetti said the first-year expenses would be part of a possible $100 million investment to rebuild Hialeah Park.

"We will continue with Quarter Horse meets," he said. "What we do beyond that depends on what happens in Tallahassee."

Brunetti and owners of Calder and Gulfstream were involved in rancorous debates over racing dates during the 1980s and 1990s.

Florida deregulated racing dates in 2002. Thus, Hialeah would have been forced to run at the same time as Gulfstream, owned by Magna Entertainment Corp., or Calder, owned by Churchill Downs Inc.

Hialeah did not hold races in 2002 or 2003. The Florida DPMW then revoked its Thoroughbred permit, noting that it violated a state law by not racing during two consecutive years.

In several years since then, legislators from Miami-Dade were unsuccessful in efforts to regain a Thoroughbred permit for Hialeah.

"This year, people worked together and the legislature passed a bill that helps Hialeah and many others in the pari-mutuel industry and also helps the Seminoles," Brunetti said. "The Seminoles want more, and we don’t know whether there will be a new law when we start and run our meet. We are running because we want to thank the legislature for what it did this spring, and show everyone our commitment to rebuilding Hialeah Park."

On Sept. 30, a spokeswoman for the Florida House’s Republican leadership said the legislature has "no current plans" for a special session to consider revisions of the Seminole compact.

The bill that passed this year, and is now contingent on a Seminole compact, would cut the state tax rate from 50% to 35% on pari-mutuel slot machines. The bill also would let pari-mutuels statewide have card rooms open 24 hours, and authorize a non-profit Thoroughbred meet for the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Co.

The bill also gives the Seminoles exclusive rights to blackjack and baccarat in Florida.

Marc Dunbar, an attorney who represents Gulfstream, said he is still hopeful that the legislature will hold a special session on gaming issues in December.

"If the House speaker and Senate president agree to a special session, it can happen in the blink of an eye," said Dunbar, a partner in Pennington Law Firm in Tallahassee.

If no agreement can be reached on Seminole issues, some racing and jai alai officials hope the legislature late this year will consider a bill will all the pari-mutuel provisions of the bill it passed in May, said Isadore Havenick,�@ a vice president of Flagler Greyhound in Miami.

By the end of this month, Flagler plans to open its Magic City Casino with 700 slot machines. It would be the first Miami-Dade pari-mutuel with a casino.