Hialeah Park, Florida's greatest racetrack, battles mega-casinos and lawsuits

The sky is a surreal blend of purple and orange as dusk settles over Hialeah Park. Pink flamingos, forever memorialized in the opening credits of Miami Vice, wade in the manmade pond near the second turn of one the most storied horse-racing tracks in America. A bugle trumpets through the speakers, signaling the arrival of the horses for the last race of opening day.

Inside the clubhouse, gamblers scramble to place their wagers. Dozens who have already laid their bets congregate near the winner's circle, where they have a bird's-eye view of the finish line. Some lean against the railing as ten horses and their jockeys parade to the starting gate for the Sunshine State Stakes, a 220-yard dash featuring quarter horses — leaner, smaller animals than thoroughbreds.

William "Bill" Ives steers his steed, Doctor Onaka, into the number two slot. The 50-year-old jockey sports a satin jersey in a John Deere-tractor color scheme. The 4-year-old gelding from Oklahoma, competing outside his home state for the first time, is a 12-to-1 long shot to win the $13,500 purse.

Hialeah Park has hosted Triple Crown winners, Kennedys, and Winston Churchill.
Hialeah Park has hosted Triple Crown winners, Kennedys, and Winston Churchill.
Jockey William "Bill" Ives returned to racing three years ago after a 17-year absence.
Coady Photography
Jockey William "Bill" Ives returned to racing three years ago after a 17-year absence.

Ives needs the cash. A win would justify his 3,000-mile trek from his rural home in the mountains of Omak, Washington, not to mention his possibly insane decision to return to the brutal demands of jockeying after 17 years away. The Native American ex-logger thought he had quit racing for good in 1991, but the lure of winning six figures and the adrenaline rush of clinging to a thousand-pound horse galloping on a dirt track proved too tempting. Most jockeys last only three years in the punishing sport before gruesome injuries knock them out, so Ives knows he's dangerously pushing his luck.

"Horse racing is physically demanding," he admits. "At 50, it starts catching up to you."

One Tough Dude, the horse in the first position, right next to Doctor Onaka, is the 3-1 favorite. Ives scrunches his five-foot-one, 115-pound frame into race-riding mode. He straps on his goggles and tightly grips the reins.

The historic track where Ives is competing faces its own high-odds fight for survival.

Hialeah Park, a place where Seabiscuit made his debut and Kennedy royalty bet on the ponies, is hemorrhaging money as fans flock to the more accessible, newer Gulfstream and Calder courses. Its owner's only hope for success — a $100 million plan for a full-scale casino — faces lawsuits from competitors and, more ominously, a bill in Tallahassee to let Malaysian giant Genting or its Las Vegas brothers build a downtown Miami megaresort.

If that's not daunting enough, longtime owner John Brunetti is also locked in a lawsuit filed by a millionaire Internet maverick who's trying to muscle him out — all while detractors charge he has let a historic gem fall into disrepair.

"The racetrack has been a noose around John's neck ever since he bought it," says Halsey Minor, founder of Internet company CNET, who is trying to wrest Hialeah Park away from Brunetti. "He has failed at everything he has tried to do there. He can't point to one success."

But counting out Brunetti at this point in the race would be as big a mistake as writing off the wily veteran Ives. The 80-year-old racetrack owner is determined to fight off the lawsuits, outmaneuver the billionaire gaming companies, and restore Hialeah Park's glorious legacy.

"Isn't it nice to believe in something that you work hard at and sacrifice so much to see it through to fruition?" Brunetti asks in a gravely voice. "Hialeah Park has been my guiding light in life."

When the gates open, Spanish-speaking gamblers yell out the numbers of the horses they've bet on: "¡Número cinco! ¡Vamos! ¡El ocho, el ocho! ¡Dale, dale!" Doctor Onaka shoots out, blowing by One Tough Dude for an early lead.

A cool breeze pushes the lilies floating in a square pool near the west entrance of Hialeah Park's clubhouse. In the pool's center, a life-size bronze statue of Triple Crown winner Citation rises from the water like an equine sentry protecting the hallowed ground. Tendrils loaded with bougainvillea stretch up the walls of the ivory-colored chateau's stone façade.

Dennis Testa, Hialeah Park's vice president of operations, gazes at the statue his dad installed in 1961. "I put a silver dollar coin underneath its right front hoof," he says cheerfully. "That's how I left my imprint."

The snowy-haired man with a neatly trimmed mustache has basically lived at Hialeah Park for four decades, watching firsthand its days of national prominence fade into obscurity and nearly end a few years ago. These days, he's back working at the track, hopeful but wary that Hialeah's legendary history can live on.

"I don't think I can narrow down my one favorite memory, considering the magnitude of this place," Testa says. "I'm lucky to have been a part of it."

In 1958, when Testa was 7 years old, his father relocated the family from Vineland, New Jersey, to a three-bedroom concrete house on the northeast edge of the 220-acre property that includes Hialeah Park. His dad had landed a job as the track's general superintendent.

"Hialeah Park was my back yard," the 60-year-old Testa says. "When I turned 10, I was my dad's go-to guy. From cleaning up manure to unclogging drains to painting the walls, I did all the odd jobs."

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8 comments
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Casinoking64
Casinoking64

Magic City Caino is very poorly run. The owners are greedy and they violate many Regulations in the Florida Gaming Laws, the place should be shut down!

Bubba The Wise
Bubba The Wise

You really captured the spirit of Hialeah Race Track, the Brunetti family and jockey Ives. Thanks for the article.

 
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