Thursday, June 11, 2009

All hail Hialeah, may she live to race again

Far as horse racing news goes, it really couldn't get much better than this.

John Brunetti, owner of the defunct Hialeah Park race track in Florida, believes racing will return to that once-spectacular venue that was picture-postcard-perfect (inset) in its heyday.

Brunetti was quoted by as saying Hialeah will be back in business "as soon as possible." Hialeah issued a press release on the track's pink-flamingo letterhead for the first time in years, the site reported, noting that the facility had been granted a permit to host Quarter Horse racing and that officials including Brunetti and his son, John Jr., had trekked to Oklahoma's Remington Park to learn the ropes of hosting races for cow ponies. (No griping from the QH people; I love your horses, too!)

Hialeah's Quarter Horse permit, granted in March, requires the track to begin hosting races within a year. Former Florida state Rep. Luis Rojas, who lobbies on behalf of Hialeah in the legislature, estimated the cost of renovations at $40 million to $90 million, though Internet multimillionaire Halsey Minor, who tried to buy the track from Brunetti to refurbish it and was rebuffed, told The Miami Herald the cost would be more like "one hundred and twenty million bucks. It's in really bad shape ... you can see the bones."

Remington -- with slot machines driving purses for Quarter Horse racing to a stellar $265,577 per night -- ended its Quarter Horse meeting May 31 by reporting increases in both on-track attendance and handle. The latter was up 4.9 percent over 2008, this despite a recession.

The Blood-Horse reports that recent Florida legislation has opened the possibility of slot machines at Hialeah, which had initially been specifically written-out of voter-approved initiatives that permitted slots elsewhere in the Sunshine State. Hialeah has been closed since 2001, when it shuttered the place after losing a series of disputes about racing dates with competing Calder Race Course and Gulfstream Park. But with slots -- and bigger plans -- Brunetti thinks Hialeah can again give the other contenders a run for their money.

"Since Hialeah already has an existing facility," the press release stated, "we are moving forward with plans to refurbish the track and return to racing as soon as possible."

"It is our hope that the new Hialeah Park will not be limited to Quarter Horse Racing," said John Brunetti Jr. "We also envision adding a casino, a card room with poker and dominoes, and slot machines, along with 'Class A' Thoroughbred racing."

Florida law ... and this is interesting ... has an allowance for "poker rooms" specifically at Quarter Horse tracks. Go figure.

I can't picture a more rewarding site for horse racing right now than a renovated Hialeah Park -- pink flamingoes and all -- playing host to throngs of gamblers, be they horseplayers, card-players, or slot-handle-pullers. The city of Hialeah is probably thinking the same thing. Officials there said that more than 9,000 job applications have already been submitted in hopes of gaining employment at the reopened track.

Certainly Hialeah Park is a national treasure. Construction originally began in 1921 under the ownership, among others, of aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss. It survived a 1926 hurricane and in 1930 was sold to wealthy Philly horseman Joseph Early Widener. Hialeah Park in 1932 installed the first totalisator in the United States -- the device was imported from Australia -- to facilitate parimutuel wagering. The track features some of the nation's most striking architecture; it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979; and, it was also the setting during 1987 of most of the principal photography for one of my favorite flicks, the Richard Dreyfuss picture "Let It Ride."

For more on the racetrack, visit "Save Hialeah Park," which touts the track as among the "11 most endangered historic places in America." It ain't the most-updated site in the world, but there's some interesting Hialeah Park information there. Also be sure to check out this photo essay on the track since its closure, and this Myspace page dedicated to saving Hialeah.

And if people in or around Inglewood, Calif., had that sort of interest in their local track, maybe Hollywood Park wouldn't, as it now seems, be doomed.

But there's still some trepidation regarding Hialeah's resurrection. Minor thinks Brunetti doesn't have the bucks to do the job. And Ray Paulick noted in 2008 that Brunetti's management of Hialeah was far from the sharpest.

Let's hope that the combination of a Quarter Horse permit (requiring new stables as the original ones were demolished) and gambing that includes poker and slots (to reward renovation of the front-side facilities) will get Hialeah back on its feet.

It would be nice to see the track back in action, flamingoes and all, and to see Hialeah make a serious case for good race dates -- the kind of case Brunetti couldn't make in the past.


  1. I'm with Minor on this one: it's only a thinly veiled attempt to get some slot revenue, or at best a helpless Hail Mary attempt.

    Given the already existing over-saturation of the South Florida casino market it's extremely unlikely that this source of income will be sufficient to grow Hialeah back into a meaningful racetrack. As a sporting event QH racing has no potential whatsoever in a state with a rich history in other modes of racing, but no QH fanbase to speak of.

    I have no reason to doubt Brunetti's honest love for Hialeah, but I also have no reason to believe in a future for the track as long as he is running it.

  2. Maybe you're right, and maybe it is a "Hail Mary." But slots and a poker room could add up to pretty good revenue, and since stables would have to be built for the Quarter Horses, that opens the way to stabling Thoroughbreds there at other times, for other dates.

    I wouldn't dismiss Quarter Horse racing as not being able to build a fan base. If the track is open for other wagering, or just for people to drop by and look at, some folks will start watching the Quarters. And this isn't the first location to make an attempt to race Quarters. I'm not sure what-all is holding up the Hamilton Downs track (the endangered "gopher turtles," I hear) but if there were two facilities -- one extreme north, one in the south -- the game has a chance.

    There's an organization promoting it, anyway:

  3. Hope springs eternal, but QH racing has been unable to gain a meaningful customer base in easier confines, such as Iowa or Minnesota, which have more of a western tradition, and no competition from Jai Alai pelot-inos (I claim copyright on that word!) and Greyhound racinos.

    I just can't see that Florida fanbase with decades of watching Thoroughbreds to suddenly embrace QH racing. Not to mention that QH and a beautiful but somewhat regal facility like Hialeah don't quite match, IMO.

    I have nothing whatsoever against QH racing (although I'm not interested in it at all), but I'm pretty sure QH fans will agree that it's a differently-spirited sport with a different target audience, not just a cheaper alternative for the T-breds. Actually, I think it may have more potential in the North/Panhandle areas of Florida.

  4. I agree with your assessment that QH racing will do better in the panhandle of Florida. Those folks are a bit more country than South Florida, to say the least.

    Is Quarter Horse racing doing that badly in Iowa and Minnesota? They aren't Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana and parts Southwest, but I thought it was holding its own.

    I know they have three QH trials tomorrow night at Indiana Downs, small purses ($6,250) but that's the way it is outside of the QH meccas, so to speak. And they have 8, 8 and 10 entries in the three races. They're at the end of the card.

    Canterbury Park has at least five QH trials this weekend, with 9 and 8 entries on Friday, 7-7-7 in three races on Saturday. Purses there are lower, at $3,000, paltry even by Canterbury's TB standards. But they do have entries.

    Prairie Meadows' QH meet (combined with TBs, which are already under way) runs from July 27 to Sept. 19 with five days of racing per week. The stakes schedule features 21 races during that span, some IA-bred and others open and ranging up to G2, with purses from $20,000 to $70,000 (Bank of America Central Championship Challenge).

    I'm a firm believer that anything there's money for, there'll be competitors for, and competition begets betting. If Skoal sponsored a $100,000 purse for the champion at spitting for distance, there'd be a Vegas line on it.

  5. I generally agree with your "If they pay it, they will come" - approach. I've recently written about the QH situation at PrM.

    Admittedly, my MN info is a bit older, but the bottom line is the same: wherever QH racing doesn't have at least either tradition or its target audience, the sport attracts far less attention than the T-breds. It's still attractive for racinos because of the lower cost, but unlike Prairie Meadows or Canterbury, a Hialeah QH track would have to compete with established racinos/pelotinos at Calder, Dania, Flagler, Miami JA, Hollywood DT and Gulfstream.

    More importantly, Hialeah is by default a premium provider (you can't run a bottom product meet in high-end surroundings), so a QH meet will just seem unfamiliar to both audiences.

  6. I did read your QH post over at your site, once it got through my thick skull that you were The Dresden File guy and I hadn't read your page in the last week or so. I should've commented in the thread to let you know I was there.


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