"My dad was driving a school bus and raising horses to earn a living," he says. "All his kids had graduated and had careers, so racing was a way for him to get out of the area and make money."

Quarter-horse racing was taking off, meanwhile, in states such as Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Florida thanks to new laws allowing casino gambling at racetracks. An old friend and horse trainer suggested that Ives, despite his age, get back into the racing circuit.

Ives agreed, and his kids supported him. "His first race back was at a Seattle county fair," Alvin remembers. "It was pretty funny for me to see him really nervous before he got on the horse. He was shaking so much."

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.

He didn't win, but Ives finished the race, and he soon began touring the Midwest and the West Coast, hitting tracks in Colorado, Idaho, and Washington. In spite of his father's age, Alvin encouraged him. "I was totally stoked for him," Alvin says. "I wanted him to do really good."

For the past four years, Alvin has watched his father's every race online. "Not only have I seen all his races, I've bet on my dad every single time no matter what horse he is riding," Alvin says. "If he has a bad meet, so do I."

Ives's big break came in 2009, when he met Rodger and Chantaille Smith, who would become his agents. Rodger is a former jockey who, along with his 22-year-old daughter, represents jockeys looking for trainers. "Meeting Rodger and Chantaille was a blessing," Ives says.

Despite his age and his years away from the track, Ives's talent never disappeared. In 2010, his third year on the quarter-horse circuit, he made about $125,000.

Later that year, in late November, the Smiths and Ives headed to Hialeah for the first time to run on the track he had idolized as a kid. "I couldn't wait to get down there," Ives says. "The climate, the people, and the history is unbeatable."

The old jockey didn't waste his chance at Hialeah Park. After hooking up with Jackie Kirby, a 40-year-old horseman from Pryor, Oklahoma, Ives won four races with Kirby's horses, including the closing race, the Hialeah Invitational Championship, which paid a $36,000 bounty.

By the start of this season, though, Ives's remarkable three-year comeback had begun to take its toll on his body. Before suiting up for the Sunshine State Stakes, doubts were creeping in. His knees creaked as he mounted his horse. Most of the jockeys lining up beside him were half his age. And his family was three time zones away.

"I've been growing more and more physically tired," Ives admits. "It's been coming on for months."

But now that the race is on, as Doctor Onaka barrels toward the finish line, Ives's doubts seem a million miles away. Adrenaline shoots through his veins and sends his heart pounding. Clumps of dirt fly in every direction as his horse's hooves pummel the turf. Twenty yards away — if Ives can just maintain his lead over Marys Corazon — the finish line offers another chance to taste victory.

A tall man sporting salt-and-pepper hair, dark sunglasses, and a navy pinstripe suit leisurely paces the clubhouse. His black loafers clicking quietly on the terrazzo floor, John Brunetti Jr. enters a room showcasing his father's vision for the future.

The walls are decorated with architectural renderings. Inside a glass case sits a model replica of the racetrack surrounded by new buildings. The proposed casino is connected to the clubhouse, and just to the north of the property, a hotel towers over the development. Shops and restaurants are spread out on the portion of land that currently houses the temporary horse stalls.

"My father is a very determined individual," Jr. says of the proposal.

Among racing fans and preservationists, Brunetti Sr. has long been reviled for letting Hialeah Park fall by the wayside. But the same owner who nearly killed the park now says he can save it if plans to build a $100 million casino on the grounds come to fruition — and if he can outlast the push for a Miami casino and the lawsuits against him. If he fails, the hundreds of millions the Brunetti family has sunk into saving the historic park will likely be for naught.

"[My father] never gives up when someone tells him something can't be done," Jr. says. "They said Hialeah would never have races again, yet he made it happen."

Brunetti Sr. already saved the park from the brink once, just when he seemed ready to raze the place for apartments in 2007. In part, he says, a grassroots movement by residents called "Save Hialeah Park" convinced him to give horse racing another shot in Hialeah.

"The mayor at the time, Julio Robaina, asked me what we could do collectively to bring back racing," Brunetti says. "Soon various members of the Miami-Dade legislative delegation and factions from the thoroughbred industry came onboard. So I gave up my ideas about redeveloping Hialeah Park."

In December 2009, Brunetti's track ran its first races since 2001 to triumphant headlines, but today the owner admits that quarter-horse racing alone doesn't pay the bills. In fact, he agreed to reopen the historic property only under the assumption he could build a casino to offset the losses from horse racing.

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8 comments
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Eva
Eva

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Casinoking64
Casinoking64

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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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