The Last Pony Show

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

And Brunetti, at any rate, is not popular with the organization that represents the 5000 or so owners and trainers who raise horses in Florida: the Florida Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association (FHBPA). Brunetti and the FHBPA currently are at odds over monies paid out last year, when, for the first and only time, Hialeah Park struck a lease agreement to hold its racing season at rival Gulfstream. The FHBPA, which cites as its main goal securing the highest possible purse contracts for members, claims Brunetti underpaid participating owners and trainers by $800,000. Brunetti says he didn't get all the races he initially contracted for and, by his own estimate, overpaid the horsemen by a half-million dollars.

The dispute, while relatively minor, does highlight some of the industry politics that eventually may sink Brunetti and Hialeah Park. Gulfstream Park general manager Savin served as the FHBPA's president for seven years before assuming his Gulfstream post, an unusual career path given that the FHBPA and the tracks ostensibly are in a relationship not unlike that of labor to management.

Savin's succession to the top management spot at Gulfstream is testimony to just how much the horsemen and the major tracks have closed ranks, and perhaps an indication of just how marginal to the industry Hialeah has become. This is how Savin sums up the formula for good relations between the FHBPA and the racetracks: "It's how much money you give to the horsemen. Hialeah gives horsemen half as much per day as Gulfstream does."

Hialeah's storied history is one for the books
Photo courtesy of Hialeah Race track
Hialeah's storied history is one for the books
Hialeah's storied history is one for the books
Photo courtesy of Hialeah Race track
Hialeah's storied history is one for the books

Not that money is the only issue. Brunetti often has been compared (and occasionally compares himself) to the volatile owner of baseball's New York Yankees, George Steinbrenner. There certainly are similarities between the two men. Both made their money outside of sports -- Steinbrenner in shipbuilding, Brunetti in real estate. Both gain a great deal of personal satisfaction and prestige from their signature properties. "Brunetti," says a close acquaintance, "loves to walk into a restaurant and have people say, That's the owner of Hialeah Park.'" Both have a reputation for being difficult in the extreme.

Talk long enough to the people who work for Brunetti and you'll hear the kinds of stories -- a mixture of affection and exasperation -- that embarrassed children often tell about overbearing fathers. The Monday morning following a recent industry meeting at Gulfstream Park, the Hialeah office was abuzz with one such tale. "You had to be there," recounted the designated storyteller. "[Magna chairman] Stronach is talking about how he's going to do this and that with Gulfstream. All these big plans, right? Brunetti, who's sitting out in the audience, takes off his cap and starts waving it around, trying to get Stronach's attention. Everyone's looking at him, so Stronach says, Well, Mr. Brunetti, would you like to say something?'" The narrator looked around the room, waiting for the image to take hold in his audience's mind. "I thought I was going to die."

Brunetti's style -- friends, predictably, call it direct, others arrogant -- has perhaps hurt him more than it has helped him in a highly political and incestuous industry. For instance the ongoing feud with the FHBPA and, by extension, its ex-president Scott Savin, almost surely precludes future leasing arrangements with Gulfstream now that Savin is the park's manager. It was hoped the "Hialeah-at-Gulfstream" experiment would lead to some accommodation between the two parks.

If industry politics and personality conflicts seem to be working against Brunetti and Hialeah, state politics don't appear much more promising. Mayor Martinez is doubtful he'll be able to lobby for legislative help this time. "I've got a Republican governor, a Republican legislature, and I'm a Democrat," he explains. And then just in case the listener has missed the point: "Jeb Bush didn't return my calls when we had flooding."

The park, though, is not without influence in Tallahassee. The largely Cuban-American, mostly Republican delegation from South Florida has long backed the track and will do so again this time around. State Rep. Rene Garcia, who was born in Hialeah, will sponsor a bill to restructure the racing calendar. "Hialeah has been surviving with the worst dates of the season," Garcia says, already practicing his pitch. "Give Hialeah a portion of the better dates and see what happens."

That, of course, will be no mean sales job, given the direction of the industry and the lobbying power of the competition. Garcia's impassioned belief that the issue "boils down to the history of Hialeah Park" may not go very far.

Hialeah Park held its first racing season in early 1925, the same year its host community was incorporated as a city. The original track operated illegally for the first few years; playing the horses wasn't legalized in Florida until 1931. Local authorities looked the other way.

The park's first incarnation, however, bore little physical resemblance to the facility that owner Joseph Widener would open in the winter of 1932, just in time to celebrate the newfound right of South Floridians to legally bet the ponies.

Widener wanted more than a racetrack; he wanted a monument to the respectability of horseracing. And he achieved it in typical South Florida fashion: by stealing designs from all the best places. Widener took his chief architect on a tour of Europe, viewing everything from classic English race courses to casinos on the French Riviera. They also visited New York's Saratoga and Belmont racetracks, two of the premier parks in the United States.

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