The Last Pony Show

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

With few exceptions the horseracing calendar has been regulated, either formally or informally, by the state since gambling on the sport was legalized in Florida in the Thirties. Until the early Seventies, Hialeah enjoyed favored-park status. The legislature, year after year, awarded the track the choice winter-tourist-season dates -- roughly running from early January through mid-March -- based on the fact that Hialeah, naturally, had outperformed its competitors the previous year and was considered the most reliable source of tax revenue among the three area tracks (Gulfstream and Tropical Park being the other two; Calder opened in 1971).

A 1971 legal challenge to the "Hialeah bill" succeeded in having it judged to be unfair to the other parks, which led to its repeal. A state commission was established to award dates to each track based on a set of objective criteria. The commission eventually was overwhelmed by the internecine struggles of the South Florida tracks, and disbanded in the mid-Eighties. Since that time Gulfstream Park and Calder Race Course have usually applied for and received their preferred dates from the state's Department of Business and Professional Regulation. Gulfstream has a virtual lock on the January to March racing season, and Calder, though relegated to the sport's slowest period in South Florida, is awarded more racing days (about 170 between May and December) than Gulfstream and Hialeah combined. Hialeah has had to settle for exclusive rights to the mid-March to mid-May dates.

Some would say Hialeah has been lucky to get that. "Four years ago," remembers Martinez, "I went to the Florida Senate and worked out the current agreement." Essentially the mayor lobbied to save Hialeah Park. The legislature passed a law requiring any track operating outside its assigned period to pay a double tax penalty to the state, effectively preventing Gulfstream and Calder from competing head-to-head with Hialeah in the spring. Without the penalty, there's every reason to believe Hialeah -- which had to close its doors temporarily in the late Eighties when horseracing was first deregulated and the parks were free to race against one another -- would go out of business. Permanently. The legislation expires this year.

"All we want is a free-market economy," says Scott Savin, general manager of Gulfstream Park, sitting in his second-floor Gulfstream office. Dressed in a stylish brown sport coat and taupe-colored mock turtleneck, the youthful Savin is an unabashed disciple of what he calls "entrepreneurial capitalism." Deregulation, he says, should be the horseracing industry's primary goal. "Three hundred sixty-five days," Savin says, stressing the number for effect while stealing a glimpse at the television set that remains on throughout the afternoon, carrying live broadcasts of Gulfstream's races. "Everybody runs whenever they want."

Savin would like Gulfstream's 2002 season to run from January 3 through April 24. Two days later, Calder would open its doors. Savin knows this would essentially finish Hialeah Park, but for him these are the rules of the game in any business. "Walgreens doesn't go to the government because Eckerd opens a store across the street," Savin offers, plucking an example out of the air. "Hialeah is looking for the State of Florida to keep them in business."

Brunetti doesn't deny he needs help, or that Gulfstream and Calder enjoy certain natural advantages over his park. Both Gulfstream and Calder are located near the county line between Miami-Dade and Broward and are easily accessible from either direction. Gulfstream sits on U.S. 1 in Hallandale, while Calder is on NW 27th Avenue in North Miami-Dade, just up the road from Pro Player Stadium. Both are close to the condo-canyon snowbird and retiree populations that now make up the bulk of the sport's patrons.

But Brunetti resents the lip service paid to free-market mechanisms by Savin and other major-track operators. The truth, he'll tell you, is that Gulfstream and Calder benefit from an unusually cozy relationship with each other. "Calder and Gulfstream say free enterprise," recites Brunetti. "Well, fine. File for dates against each other. Why do they only file for Hialeah's dates?" Brunetti thinks it's because the two tracks and the corporations that own them have agreed (unofficially, of course) to divide the South Florida market between themselves.

The Hialeah Park owner believes the solution is not in less regulation but in more. "Why does every other sport regulate the number of home and away games, broadcast revenue, and player drafts?" he asks, barely pausing before answering his own question. "Because it's better for the sport if everyone can compete." The analogy to other sports is a popular one in and around Hialeah Park. "The state needs to take a look at the industry as a whole," says Steve Bovo, the park's director of marketing, "the way Major League Baseball does."

Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez, whose office entryway is decorated with scenes from some of America's most famous racetracks, including a black-and-white crowd shot of the 1937 Widener Challenge at Hialeah Park, believes that may be wishful thinking. "Trainers and owners all love Hialeah Park, but nobody stands up for Hialeah anymore," he laments. "There are no more Woody Stephenses, no more John Galbreaths." In other words no more sportsmen in the classic mold -- only moneymen, owners, and general managers who view the sport, and their interests, in strictly mercenary terms.

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