Brunetti Sees Red Ink for Hialeah Park

The track owner expects losses from its first Quarter Horse meet.

Hialeah Park chairman John Brunetti Sr. estimates the track could lose $15 million or more in preparing for and running a 10-week Quarter Horse meet it plans to begin  Nov. 28, 2009.

Brunetti Sept. 9 also said Hialeah Park might not run a full meet if Florida’s government this fall does not enact a law that would later allow it to return to Thoroughbred racing on a limited base and have a casino with Class III Las Vegas-style slot machines. Provisions of that law will take effect only if Gov. Charlie Crist, the Florida legislature, and the Seminole Tribe of Florida can agree to a compact with rules for that tribe’s seven Florida casinos.

Hialeah Park has its Quarter Horse permit regardless of whether Florida approves a wider set of gaming rules.

Running a required Quarter Horse meet is the first step in Hialeah Park’s three-year plan to reach its full goals, Brunetti said. But those goals are contingent on this fall’s political negotiations.

Thus, Brunetti said he has told the Florida Quarter Horse Racing Association “that we might need to curtail our first meet if it looks like there is no chance of getting the other things that are essential for our long-range plan. In any case, we will begin running the meet this year."

Over a full 10 weeks, he projects a loss of $15 million or more partly because he expects “very little revenue” from on-track and from any simulcast wagering. In addition, he said Florida QHRA members will not contribute to purses or pay to lease any of the 1,000 temporary stalls he is planning for the property.

Hialeah Park has a goal of $100,000 in daily purses, with eight races per day.

During an opening meet, Hialeah Park would not be able to have import simulcasting. But it would be able to have a poker room open 12 hours, seven days a week.

Hialeah Park is focusing on its first-year racing plans and will later announce plans for poker, Brunetti said. The first year’s loss would be “part of the investment” that would take several stages and cost about $100 million in restoring Hialeah Park and adding a casino.

On Sept. 4, the Florida QHRA and Hialeah Park announced plans for a Quarter Horse meet from Nov. 28, 2009, through Feb. 2, 2010. As of Sept. 9, Hialeah Park had not applied for Quarter Horse race dates with the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering.

Brunetti said Hialeah Park expects it will apply for dates during the week of Sept. 14, “when we have all the details settled for what we will need for an application.”

Hialeah Park last held racing in 2001, when it had its most recent Thoroughbred meet.

On March 16, 2009, the Florida DPMW issued a Quarter Horse permit to Hialeah Park. As an existing facility, Hialeah Park has 12 months from that date to hold its first meet.

The track plans to offer Quarter Horse races from Saturdays through Tuesdays. With 40 programs and eight races per program, Hialeah Park would meet minimum requirements for Quarter Horse meets under Florida laws.

Hialeah Park would be the first track to hold Quarter Horse races in Florida since 1991, when harness track Pompano Park held a short Quarter Horse meet.

Dr. Steve Fisch, president of the Florida QHRA, expects Florida owners would send between 750 and 1,000 horses to Hialeah Park for its 2009-10 meet. Quarter Horse owners in Oklahoma and New Mexico also have said they will send horses to Hialeah Park, said Fisch, a veterinarian at AVS Equine Hospital in Tallahassee, Fla.

“They were very forthcoming in our talks, and they are very interested in having their horses run in Florida,” Brunetti said. “The agreement is something we can both live with.”

However, Brunetti said: “They do not have money available for purses."

Brunetti estimates it will cost Hialeah Park “between $8 million and $12 million to get ready, and another $8 million to $12 million to run our first meet.” Part of the costs would be offset by revenue from wagering and concessions.

Costs will include building temporary stalls on the west side of Hialeah Park, which previously was its stable area. Hialeah Park tore the barns down several years ago. After grass is cleared within several weeks, Hialeah Park plans to build stalls Brunetti said will have roofs and side covers and will be “similar to what they have at fair meets.”

Quarter Horse owners will have free use of stall space.

Dennis Testa, Hialeah Park vice president of operations, is coordinating plans for stalls and for refurbishing the dirt track and clubhouse, Brunetti said. Testa also is working with City of Hialeah officials to obtain operating permits. He is a former chief of operations at Gulfstream Park.

“We will use only the clubhouse and temporary facilities for this first Quarter Horse meet,” Brunetti said. “The grandstand and other facilities will be in use for our second season and succeeding years.”

The grandstand still needs repairs from damage suffered damage during  Hurricane Wilma in 2005.

“We are harrowing the track, and can have it ready for training within 30 days,” Brunetti said.

The dirt surface, which for decades was used for the Flamingo and other stakes, can be used for Quarter Horses. The entire 1 1/8-mile track will be usable for training, Brunetti said.

Hialeah Park would hold Quarter Horse races during afternoons--and on many days would compete with Calder Race Course and later with Gulfstream. Because of a ballyhooed “return of Hialeah,” its races could attract interest from sports fans and other Miami-area residents during the meet’s early days. But Brunetti realistically expects “that we would see very little revenue coming from the (on-track) pari-mutuel betting or from simulcasts.”

“We are talking with the American Quarter Horse Racing Association about sending our signal to some of its tracks,” he said. “But this would be in western states in different time zones, and we would have a new product. We still have several weeks to work on this.”

Meanwhile, Brunetti said he does “not see a first-year market” for carrying Quarter Horse races at horse and dog tracks and jai-alai frontons in Florida, though that would be permitted.

A bill the Florida legislature passed last May and Crist signed in June would allow Hialeah Park to use its Quarter Horse permit to hold half its races as Thoroughbred races, without permission from a Thoroughbred track that is holding a meet within a 50-mile radius. The change would take effect immediately. But Brunetti said Hialeah Park would not be able to utilize it in 2009-10.

The 2009 law also allows Hialeah Park to have a casino, with Class III Las Vegas-style slot machines, after it holds race meets for two consecutive years.

Under the law, the state tax rate on slot machine revenue would be cut from 50% to 35% at Gulfstream’s casino, a casino Calder plans to open next January, a Hialeah casino, and at other pari-mutuel casinos in Miami-Dade and Broward counties. But there are widespread concerns the law will not take effect because an agreement Crist and the Seminoles signed  Aug. 31 would make major changes in the law.

The proposed compact would not take away any of the potential new gaming products for Hialeah Park.

“The Seminoles would get almost everything they have been seeking,”  Brunetti said. “We will not lose what the bill gave us. But like other (pari-mutuel facilities), we need to determine if we can accept this new version.”

The legislature will probably meet in October to consider changes in the Aug. 31 compact, which would then require approval from the Seminoles and Crist.