Hialeah Park opened its Quarter Horse meet Nov. 28 before a crowd that track owner and president John J. Brunetti estimated at between 15,000-20,000.
Brunetti had projected an attendance of more than 10,000 for the Hialeah, Fla., track’s first racing since its last Thoroughbred meet in 2001.
Other observers also estimated the crowd at about 15,000 on a clear day with temperatures in the low 70s. They also complimented Brunetti on the work done since late summer to restore a large portion of Hialeah’s grounds and building.
“It looks beautiful,” said Sam Gordon, president of the Florida Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association.
“It was amazing walking in here,” said Thoroughbred trainer Tim Ritvo. “It was like a blast from the past.”
Racing officials and fans watched and roared as Hialeah’s starting gate sprung open at 1:09 p.m. EST for the first race.
Definatly Maybe took the lead midway through the 300-yard race and beat London Express by three-quarters of a length and paid $10. The 2-year-old gelding is trained by Manuel Mata and was ridden by Jose Ranilla.
Hialeah has opened the clubhouse portion of its building but not the grandstand for its 40-day Quarter Horse meet. It was standing room only in the 6,500-seat clubhouse, and fans also were elbow to elbow in the apron area.
A large crowd also was in the paddock area, many wearing souvenir t-shirts. The supply of 10,000 shirts was gone prior to the first race.
Some observers said Hialeah’s building looked more modern and spruced-up than in 2001. It had about 75 betting windows open -- with long lines for windows with clerks but shorter ones at self-service terminals.
Many fans apparently were there for the event, and not for wagering. Most kept their seats and standing spots through the second race, soaking up the atmosphere on a day where, as of 1:45 p.m., Brunetti could not have asked for a better script.
Last March 16, Hialeah received a Quarter Horse permit from the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering. It is a holding a 40-day meet through next Feb. 2, with a hope that it will lead to a return of Thoroughbred racing and to a casino.
A pending state law would allow Hialeah to have up to half its races as Thoroughbred events, with the other half as Quarter Horse races in future meets. Under that law, Hialeah’s holding of Quarter Horse races also would permit it to build a casino with Las Vegas-style slot machines.
Enactment of the law is being held up amid a dispute between Gov. Charlie Crist and the Florida legislature over terms of a gaming compact for the Seminole Tribe of Florida.