The possibility that Hialeah Park may not open its stable area for the upcoming season threatens to change the landscape of winter racing along the East Coast.
Hialeah's 1,600 stalls have been home to many horsemen, including northern snowbirds who race at nearby Gulfstream Park, and local horsemen who are displaced from Calder Race Course during the three months the track hosts Ocala Breeders' Sales Co. and Fasig-Tipton 2-year-old sales.
With Hialeah unlikely to operate a live meet in 2002, track officials had devised a plan whereby horsemen, who in previous years were not charged, would rent stalls at a cost of $2,500 each from Nov. 1 through April 30, 2002 and use the facility as a training center. But Hialeah chairman John Brunetti said he had not received an adequate number of reservations, and that he would not open his backstretch unless he was able to secure a commitment for $1.6 million by Oct. 5.
Meanwhile, horsemen have been forced to make alternate plans.
"I would probably go to either the Fair Grounds or to California," trainer Todd Pletcher said of his options if Hialeah doesn't open. Pletcher, who kept about 30 horses, including grade I winners Left Bank and Trippi, at Hialeah last winter, was one of the few trainers who had agreed to pay $2,500 per stall.
"It's not out of line with what Payson Park and Palm Beach Downs are charging," Pletcher said in reference to South Florida training centers popular with northern horsemen. "But people who can afford to be at those places have already filled them up. I would have preferred not to change anything, but if I can't be sure they will open by Oct. 25, I may not have that choice."
Gulfstream president Scott Savin said the impact of Hialeah's closure would be minimal. He also said some trainers stabled at Gulfstream had horses that never raced.
"With more judicious stall allocation and the cooperation of horsemen, there will be little disruption," Savin said.
Magna Entertainment, Gulfstream's parent company, is constructing a full-service training facility in nearby Boynton Beach, and therefore has no interest in subsidizing Hialeah, Savin said.
Unlike Pletcher, some trainers have already committed to Florida but foresee significant changes in their operations should Hialeah's closure limit the number of stalls they receive.
"I'd like to keep 15-20 horses, but I'd doubt that I could get nearly that many at Gulfstream," trainer Terri Pompey said. "It's already expensive to ship to Florida, and if Hialeah closes, it will make it very hard for me to stay in business."
Pompey, based in New Jersey from May through December, was among those trainers who left a $500 deposit with her application for stalls at Hialeah. She said there is a general consensus among New Jersey horsemen -- a group typically well-represented at Hialeah -- that even should the track open, $2,500 per stall might be more than they could afford.
"I might end up flipping burgers at McDonald's," she said with a laugh.
Across town at Calder, though its stables remain open year-round, notice has been given that approximately 350 stalls will be lost to horses in training between January and March as part of the track's contract with OBS and Fasig-Tipton. In years past, displaced horsemen were accommodated at Hialeah.
"I don't know what we're going to do," said Juan Rizo, who trains for his family's Santa Cruz Ranch. "I was able to get 14 stalls at Hialeah, but they tell me I can only get four at Calder. We'd like to stay in Florida, but we might not be able to. It's hard to think that with three tracks within 50 minutes they can't figure something out."