The Last Pony Show

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

Terrace turns and looks out over the deserted racing oval. "You know, we've got the best turf there is," she remarks, as if she had only now just remembered it was there. "Calder Race Course looks like a shopping mall. What kind of excitement do they have over there?" She shakes her head. "You can't even hear the horses coming down the stretch."

Aside from the old-world beauty of its architecture and the history contained on its track and within its walls, the most striking thing about Hialeah Park is the amount of land on which it sits: 220 acres, stretching from 21st to 32nd Street and running between East Fourth and Palm avenues. Most of the property is a combination of open land and parking lots, the actual facilities occupying only a small portion of the entire area. What the site contains, more than anything else, are possibilities.

Scenes from Hialeah's winter of discontent
Photos by Steve Satterwhite
Scenes from Hialeah's winter of discontent
A great horse, of course: Citation still stands tall in Hialeah Park lore
Steve Satterwhite
A great horse, of course: Citation still stands tall in Hialeah Park lore

"Nothing stops Mr. Brunetti from parceling out the land," says Bovo. "He could go to the city and just say, Guys, I'm going to build townhouses.'" The fact that Brunetti, who made his fortune as a developer, hasn't done that, Bovo believes, is an indication of just how much he wants to keep Hialeah Park a functioning racetrack.

Of course Bovo doesn't rule out the possibility of developing ancillary businesses on the property. "Could you imagine an entertainment complex here?" he asks. Perhaps thinking of the park's already successful side business, Bovo says the goal would be to "marry CocoWalk to Hialeah."

It is not a new idea. Gulfstream Park is known almost as much as a venue for classic-rock concerts as for horseracing (see "Rock Me Like a Thoroughbred," New Times, March 11, 1999), and there have been rumors that Magna International is even interested in building a shopping mall on the site.

Gulfstream, of course, has what Hialeah currently lacks. "If we had permanent dates we could count on, then we could talk seriously about a CocoWalk or an amusement park," says Mayor Martinez. In other words nobody is going to sink money into a horseracing/entertainment complex when it isn't clear there will be racing from one year to the next. Brunetti, for his part, has speculated only vaguely as to what he might do with the property should he fail to receive a remedy from the legislature. Selling it to the city, a prospect that's been hinted at in the press for years, seems unlikely.

A state report authored a few years ago recommended the City of Hialeah make Brunetti an offer of $30 million for the park, with an eye toward operating it as a municipally owned track, offering 20 to 25 days of racing per year. Of course the city may have other ideas in mind. Hialeah officials, one suspects, would be willing to make lemonade if the park's prospects for keeping horseracing should sour. "I'd be lying to you if I told you I didn't look at that piece of property, with rail access right next door, and not think of all the things the city could do with it," admits Mayor Martinez.

But selling the park to the city is a scenario that on two counts makes little sense to Brunetti. "If we can't make money with 60 days of racing," reasons the owner, "how is the city going to maintain the park with only 20 days of racing?"

More important, he says, the estimated sale price is way off. "To people who want to buy Hialeah Park for $30 million," Brunetti offers, "I say this: Why don't you go to George Steinbrenner and give him $10 million for the Yankees?' Tell him: That's all the real estate in the Bronx is worth.'" The Yankees, incidentally, would bring several hundred millions of dollars if Steinbrenner were ever to put them up for sale. Brunetti's point? He may be losing money at Hialeah, but to him it's still Hialeah, one of the most exalted properties in sports.

Brunetti could decide to develop the land after all. Contrary to popular belief, the park's 1979 inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places in no way limits the owner's right to alter or sell the property. Regardless of what the future holds for the racetrack, though, Brunetti says he wants some of the more famous aspects of Hialeah Park to survive. "I'd like to see the name preserved, the lake, the flamingos, some of the historic buildings, things like that." And, of course, the statue of Citation.

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