The Last Pony Show

Owner John Brunetti is determined to save Hialeah Park, but market pressures may spell doom after 76 years of racing

The horses at Hialeah Park are running effortlessly this morning. From the grandstand they resemble a merry-go-round, seemingly rising, then dipping, as they move along the far rail. Coming out of the last turn, they reach for one final burst to carry them to the finish.

Seven weeks before the start of the racing season at Hialeah, the horses -- a stream of beautiful gray, brown, and black thoroughbreds -- are being put through their most strenuous workout of the week. Every Saturday morning between December and March, horse owners and trainers come to watch their prized possessions kick up the dirt on the mile-and-an-eighth oval in anticipation of the spring racing season that begins Saturday, March 17.

This will be the 76th anniversary season of horseracing at the storied park whose name once was so exclusively associated with the sport that few people outside Dade County realized "Hialeah" also was a city. This season also may very well be the last. Competition from rival tracks, the changing economics of the sport, and industry politics may finally signal the end for one of Miami-Dade's most celebrated institutions.

John Brunetti (left) and Nick Apone trade horse stories on the track's backside
Steve Satterwhite
John Brunetti (left) and Nick Apone trade horse stories on the track's backside

"I tell people it's not a racetrack; it's a park, it's an attitude," says John J. Brunetti, surveying the main grounds behind the Hialeah Park clubhouse while on his way toward the stables that in the winter house more than 1000 horses. Brunetti, a New Jersey developer and long-time horse breeder, has owned the racetrack since 1977. He's been trying to keep it afloat almost since the day he bought it.

Indeed Brunetti's purchase of the park was more an intervention than an investment. He bought the track when he heard the owners of rival Gulfstream Park were interested in acquiring it to shut it down. Brunetti first visited Hialeah Park in the Fifties during his undergraduate days at the University of Miami and couldn't bear the thought of the venerable landmark dissolving into memory.

"You see that guy over there?" Brunetti asks, waving to a solidly built 80-year-old man carrying a small black notebook and standing next to the stables where the owner keeps a few of his own horses. "Nick shoed my father's horses when we first got into the horse business in 1957."

Nick Apone smiles and walks over to say hello. It doesn't take the two men long to fall into talk of the old days. "Nick worked on Spectacular Bid," says Brunetti, naming the 1979 Kentucky Derby champion. "A lot of others, too."

Exchanges like this are common. At age 70 Brunetti is no less involved in the day-to-day operation of the park than when he first took over. And he's no less vocal about the park's role, both locally and in the industry. "This is the only personal commitment to racing in the area," he declares, making a sweeping motion with his hand. "The others are just conglomerates trying to maximize their profits."

He is referring to his South Florida competition, Gulfstream Park and Calder Race Course, both purchased in the past few years by large corporations. Gulfstream was bought by Magna International, a Toronto-based auto-parts manufacturer eager to expand into the entertainment industry. Magna's 1999 purchase of Gulfstream for $95 million was part of a $550 million racetrack-buying spree that also netted the company Southern California's renowned Santa Anita Park. In addition to Gulfstream and Santa Anita, Magna owns and operates five other racetracks.

Likewise Calder Race Course is owned by Churchill Downs Incorporated. Named for its most prominent property, the famed home of the Kentucky Derby, Churchill Downs owns a total of six racetracks throughout the United States.

In a sport that has been steadily declining for almost three decades, barely able to keep up with newer forms of gaming and entertainment, the combined resources and deep pockets of such corporations may finally force Brunetti, and track owners like him, out of business. "[Magna chairman] Frank Stronach isn't spending his [personal] money on Gulfstream Park; he's spending Magna's," Brunetti notes, shaking his head. "I'm spending my own money."

Brunetti asserts he's been operating Hialeah Park at a financial loss for much of the past decade, subsidizing the operation with income from his other businesses. Industry sources corroborate his claim. But he's not crying poverty, only frustration. "My purchasing this place had nothing to do with business," Brunetti says, proud of the fact. "I wanted to save Hialeah Park for racing. My commitment to the City of Hialeah was to go as far and as long with that as possible." And he thinks he has. Now, he says, Hialeah's fate is not up to him but to the state legislature, which he believes has the power to narrow the gap between the sport's haves and have-nots.

What's really at stake in the upcoming racing season and, more important, in the state legislative session now under way in Tallahassee, Brunetti believes, is not his horseracing "business" but the very soul of the sport, the future of the locally owned independent track. And perhaps something beyond that: the future of a landmark property, a link to a historic South Florida that has all but vanished.

Leaning back in his office chair, Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez describes the acrimony between Hialeah Park and rival Gulfstream Park as a "a war between the Hatfields and the McCoys." Martinez, a member of Hialeah Park's advisory board, is talking about the battle for the racing calendar's prime dates, a competition waged every few years in the Florida legislature. He has more than a passing interest in the outcome. "I don't know of anyone who ever walked through Hialeah Park who didn't fall in love with it," he says earnestly. "It's a helluva beautiful place." It's also the symbolic heart of his city, Hialeah's only claim to fame. And Martinez doesn't want to be the mayor who presides over its demise. "I've even thought about moving Indians on to the property," he says, laughing at his own desperation. The "Hialeah Circle?" It's a thought, anyway.

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