A judge in a state circuit court in Miami on Aug. 8 dismissed Internet entrepreneur Halsey Minor’s civil suit that requested a transfer in control of Hialeah Park from its chairman and principal owner John Brunetti to the city of Hialeah, Fla.
Minor filed the suit Feb. 9. That month, he said that if the court ruled in his favor, he would be interested in leasing, rebuilding, and re-opening Hialeah Park, which last held Thoroughbred races in 2001.
Stephen Darmody, an attorney who represents Minor, said on Aug. 12 that he will appeal the circuit court’s ruling to Florida’s 3rd District Court of Appeal in Miami.
On Aug. 12, Brunetti said he expected the circuit court would rule in his favor, adding that it “followed the law and the facts.” He said he anticipated that Minor’s attorneys will file an appeal.
Brunetti also said he has agreements with Quarter Horse industry officials that he expects will enable Hialeah to re-open with Quarter Horse racing by next March, under a permit from the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering.
A pending law the Florida Legislature passed and Gov. Charlie Crist signed in May 2009 would permit Hialeah Park to have a limited return to Thoroughbred racing. Enactment of that wide-reaching gaming law requires approval of a compact between Crist and the Seminole Tribe of Florida--with an Aug. 31 deadline.
Last year, Minor and Brunetti held discussions about a possible sale of Hialeah Park. Those talks ended early this year.
Minor then filed his suit that challenges ownership of the race track by Brunetti and his company Hialeah Inc.
Minor’s suit maintains that the city of Hialeah owns the track because in 2004 it transferred a then-owned city property to Brunetti without a required approval by voters.
In 1978, Brunetti took out a 30-year mortgage from the city to purchase the track and agreed to make payments while operating it. The city transferred the deed to Brunetti in 2004.
In his Aug. 7 ruling, Circuit Court Judge Thomas Wilson dismissed Minor’s case with prejudice and declared Brunetti’s motion that the suit is a “sham pleading” as moot.
He cited a 1986 state 3rd District Court of Appeal ruling that Brunetti was responsible for real estate taxes at Hialeah Park, and in effect was the owner, even though his company was still leasing the property from the city.
Darmody noted that at a July 21 hearing, Wilson said he planned to dismiss Minor’s suit--with the expectation that it would be appealed.
“I think this issue that you are bringing should be decided by the Third District Court of Appeal one last time,” Wilson said on July 21.
He added: “So I’m going to go with the Third District’s opinion in ‘86...and grant this motion to dismiss with prejudice and give you the opportunity to go straight to the Third District. And if you come back, I’ll say congratulations and we’ll continue on.”
Wilson said he preferred that step rather than his court now beginning discovery that could cost both sides “literally hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
If the district court rules in favor of Minor’s appeal, it could send the case back to the circuit court for review of Minor’s requests, including a judgment that would declare the city of Hialeah to the owner of Hialeah Park.
Darmody, a partner in Miami law firm Shook, Hardy & Bacon had not filed his appeal for Minor as of Aug. 12.
Minor is a multimillionaire from investments that include CNET Networks, which he founded. He has owned such Thoroughbreds as Dream Rush, who won four graded stakes before she was retired at age 5 this year.
On March 16, 2009, the Florida DPMW issued a Quarter Horse racing permit to Hialeah Park. A state law requires those permit holders to begin that racing within 12 months of receiving a permit.
No Quarter Horse tracks are operating in Florida. Under existing laws, such tracks must have at least 40 live cards a year (eight races minimum).
The pending law would require those tracks to open with 20 live cards and expand to 30 and then to 40 over three years.
The pending law also would allow a Quarter Horse track to hold up to 50%of its races as Thoroughbred races, without approval of a Thoroughbred track holding a meet within a 50-mile radius. In that situation, Hialeah could hold Thoroughbred races without permission of Gulfstream Park or Calder Race Course when those tracks are holding meets.
In addition, the pending law has several changes impacting the Seminoles--including permission to have blackjack and baccarat at only four of their seven Florida casinos.
If Crist and the Seminoles make any changes in the law passed in May, the Legislature would need to review them in a special session this fall. That is causing concerns that Florida might not have a new gaming law this year.
“I don’t want to say too much about our plans until we know whether we will be operating under the old law or the new law,” Brunetti said.
But he said work has begun in renovating Hialeah Park’s grandstand and other structures and in cutting the growth that covers the main track. Hialeah Park also would need to install a new dirt surface for Quarter Horses.
In previous interviews, Brunetti estimated it would cost between $30 million and $40 million to refurbish and re-open Hialeah Park.
The pending bill also would allow Hialeah Park to install Class III Las Vegas-style slot machines after it has held live Quarter Horse races for two consecutive years.