The Last Pony Show, Part 2

Hialeah Park loses by a nose in Tallahassee, the nose belonging to Mario Diaz-Balart

It was, according to observers, reminiscent of a scene out of a Frank Capra movie. On May 3, the next-to-last day of this year's state legislative session, freshman Rep. Rene Garcia argued passionately for an amendment that would have extended for another two years Hialeah Park's exclusive rights to the horseracing calendar's spring dates, running roughly from mid-March through late May. If it wasn't exactly Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, it was close. "I'm giving you a final plea for my community," Garcia shouted from the floor of the House chambers. "Help my community."

Existing legislation, which expires July 1, has kept the 76-year-old landmark track's two competitors, Gulfstream Park in Hallandale and Calder Race Course in North Miami-Dade, from monopolizing the year-round South Florida racing season. No one, including owner John J. Brunetti, believes Hialeah is capable of competing head to head with Gulfstream or Calder. This year's legislative session, eagerly anticipated both by the track's supporters and its rivals, was considered Hialeah's last best chance to remain open. (See "The Last Pony Show,"March 8.)

Initially the odds didn't look good. Both Gulfstream and Calder have lobbied aggressively for deregulation of Florida's horseracing industry. When those tracks talk, lawmakers are inclined to listen, if for no other reason than the fact that they generate far more tax revenue for the state than does Hialeah. And while Hialeah Park's historical significance is undeniable -- it remains one of the most famous horseracing venues in the world -- the Florida legislature isn't exactly packed with preservationists.

But Garcia's emotional eleventh-hour plea apparently had an effect on the representatives assembled in the hall. His speech over, the 26-year-old Garcia, who grew up in Hialeah, watched as the yeas and nays to his proposal to protect the park's racing season piled up evenly. Too evenly. The final tally, a 58-58 tie, doomed the measure -- and very likely along with it, one of Miami-Dade County's signature properties.

That photo finish might have been heartbreaking enough. What makes it unbearable, even unacceptable, to Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez is that a member of the Miami-Dade County delegation who had pledged his support for the proposal ultimately failed to cast a vote. "Mario Diaz-Balart walked," says the mayor bitterly. "Had he been there, the measure would have been approved." Garcia agrees: "Mario told me he'd be there to fight for the proposal." Diaz-Balart's absence was conspicuous; he was one of only four House members, and the only one from Miami-Dade, who did not vote on the measure. So where was he?

"I was formally excused that day," says Diaz-Balart, producing a letter from House Speaker Tom Feeney. The letter, signed "Tom," seemingly backs up Diaz-Balart's contention that he was occupied for most of the day on May 3 with conference-committee work. The House journal for May 3 likewise lists him as excused "from time to time." The only problem is that, alongside Diaz-Balart's name, the journal lists four other representatives as excused: Frederick Brummer, Bruce Kyle, John Seiler, and fellow Miami-Dade Rep. Gaston Castens. All four managed to cast a vote on Garcia's proposal (all but Castens voted against it). So while being excused might mean legislators weren't expected to vote, it surely didn't mean they couldn't vote.

Diaz-Balart, by his own admission, was in the building -- specifically four floors away, in Gov. Jeb Bush's office. "I saw Rene's speech on the monitor in the governor's office," he says, before adding that he tried to get down to the House floor in time to cast his vote.

Martinez doesn't buy it. "Look, the [Republican] leadership didn't want this measure," he argues, noting that neither Feeney nor majority leader Mike Fasano cast a vote on Garcia's proposal. To Martinez, a Democrat, Diaz-Balart's absence from the floor looks like a concession to the Republican power structure. "That's the way they play the game up there," he grumbles.

Garcia, a Republican, acknowledges he got no help from party leaders but nevertheless prefers to take his colleague at his word. "I give him the benefit of the doubt. I have to," says Garcia of Diaz-Balart, his roommate in Tallahassee while the legislature is in session.

Regardless of why Diaz-Balart missed the vote, the question now, of course, is what will become of one of Miami-Dade's most famous attractions? Gulfstream Park plans to run its 2002 season from January 3 through April 24. Calder Race Course, conveniently enough, would open two days later and run its season through December. That arrangement would essentially finish off Hialeah Park, which can't compete with either track's geographical location or with the deep-pocket corporations that operate them.

For his part Brunetti, who has owned Hialeah Park since 1977, is leaning toward developing his 220-acre property as commercial real estate. It's not his preference, he says, but confronted with what he perceives to be unfair competition, he believes he has no choice. Unless, of course, the state were to reverse its position on regulating the industry. "If the legislature next year were to give us some way to compete in the future, I would consider keeping this a racetrack," offers Brunetti.

Rene Garcia would be willing to take up the fight again. "Next year's another year," says the no-longer-novice state legislator.

Raul Martinez and Diaz-Balart, though, aren't quite ready to leave this year's session behind. The two men, whose dislike for each other is well-known, began exchanging barbs in the Spanish-language press almost from the moment Diaz-Balart's no-show was disclosed. During a recent radio talk show on WQBA-AM (1140), for example, Diaz-Balart, offended that Martinez had questioned the reason for his absence, began referring to the mayor as "a convicted racketeer." Martinez, next to the microphone, dismissed the remark ("I have never been convicted of anything in this country") before describing what he would like to see happen with Hialeah Park. The mayor paused, then laughed. "Perhaps," he said, "we could put Mario Diaz-Balart's name on it and turn it into a rehabilitation center for liars."

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