The Last Pony Show

The horses at Hialeah Park are running effortlessly this morning. From the grandstand they resemble a merry-go-round, seemingly rising, then dipping, as they move along the far rail. Coming out of the last turn, they reach for one final burst to carry them to the finish.

Seven weeks before the start of the racing season at Hialeah, the horses -- a stream of beautiful gray, brown, and black thoroughbreds -- are being put through their most strenuous workout of the week. Every Saturday morning between December and March, horse owners and trainers come to watch their prized possessions kick up the dirt on the mile-and-an-eighth oval in anticipation of the spring racing season that begins Saturday, March 17.

This will be the 76th anniversary season of horseracing at the storied park whose name once was so exclusively associated with the sport that few people outside Dade County realized "Hialeah" also was a city. This season also may very well be the last. Competition from rival tracks, the changing economics of the sport, and industry politics may finally signal the end for one of Miami-Dade's most celebrated institutions.

"I tell people it's not a racetrack; it's a park, it's an attitude," says John J. Brunetti, surveying the main grounds behind the Hialeah Park clubhouse while on his way toward the stables that in the winter house more than 1000 horses. Brunetti, a New Jersey developer and long-time horse breeder, has owned the racetrack since 1977. He's been trying to keep it afloat almost since the day he bought it.

Indeed Brunetti's purchase of the park was more an intervention than an investment. He bought the track when he heard the owners of rival Gulfstream Park were interested in acquiring it to shut it down. Brunetti first visited Hialeah Park in the Fifties during his undergraduate days at the University of Miami and couldn't bear the thought of the venerable landmark dissolving into memory.

"You see that guy over there?" Brunetti asks, waving to a solidly built 80-year-old man carrying a small black notebook and standing next to the stables where the owner keeps a few of his own horses. "Nick shoed my father's horses when we first got into the horse business in 1957."

Nick Apone smiles and walks over to say hello. It doesn't take the two men long to fall into talk of the old days. "Nick worked on Spectacular Bid," says Brunetti, naming the 1979 Kentucky Derby champion. "A lot of others, too."

Exchanges like this are common. At age 70 Brunetti is no less involved in the day-to-day operation of the park than when he first took over. And he's no less vocal about the park's role, both locally and in the industry. "This is the only personal commitment to racing in the area," he declares, making a sweeping motion with his hand. "The others are just conglomerates trying to maximize their profits."

He is referring to his South Florida competition, Gulfstream Park and Calder Race Course, both purchased in the past few years by large corporations. Gulfstream was bought by Magna International, a Toronto-based auto-parts manufacturer eager to expand into the entertainment industry. Magna's 1999 purchase of Gulfstream for $95 million was part of a $550 million racetrack-buying spree that also netted the company Southern California's renowned Santa Anita Park. In addition to Gulfstream and Santa Anita, Magna owns and operates five other racetracks.

Likewise Calder Race Course is owned by Churchill Downs Incorporated. Named for its most prominent property, the famed home of the Kentucky Derby, Churchill Downs owns a total of six racetracks throughout the United States.

In a sport that has been steadily declining for almost three decades, barely able to keep up with newer forms of gaming and entertainment, the combined resources and deep pockets of such corporations may finally force Brunetti, and track owners like him, out of business. "[Magna chairman] Frank Stronach isn't spending his [personal] money on Gulfstream Park; he's spending Magna's," Brunetti notes, shaking his head. "I'm spending my own money."

Brunetti asserts he's been operating Hialeah Park at a financial loss for much of the past decade, subsidizing the operation with income from his other businesses. Industry sources corroborate his claim. But he's not crying poverty, only frustration. "My purchasing this place had nothing to do with business," Brunetti says, proud of the fact. "I wanted to save Hialeah Park for racing. My commitment to the City of Hialeah was to go as far and as long with that as possible." And he thinks he has. Now, he says, Hialeah's fate is not up to him but to the state legislature, which he believes has the power to narrow the gap between the sport's haves and have-nots.

What's really at stake in the upcoming racing season and, more important, in the state legislative session now under way in Tallahassee, Brunetti believes, is not his horseracing "business" but the very soul of the sport, the future of the locally owned independent track. And perhaps something beyond that: the future of a landmark property, a link to a historic South Florida that has all but vanished.

Leaning back in his office chair, Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez describes the acrimony between Hialeah Park and rival Gulfstream Park as a "a war between the Hatfields and the McCoys." Martinez, a member of Hialeah Park's advisory board, is talking about the battle for the racing calendar's prime dates, a competition waged every few years in the Florida legislature. He has more than a passing interest in the outcome. "I don't know of anyone who ever walked through Hialeah Park who didn't fall in love with it," he says earnestly. "It's a helluva beautiful place." It's also the symbolic heart of his city, Hialeah's only claim to fame. And Martinez doesn't want to be the mayor who presides over its demise. "I've even thought about moving Indians on to the property," he says, laughing at his own desperation. The "Hialeah Circle?" It's a thought, anyway.

With few exceptions the horseracing calendar has been regulated, either formally or informally, by the state since gambling on the sport was legalized in Florida in the Thirties. Until the early Seventies, Hialeah enjoyed favored-park status. The legislature, year after year, awarded the track the choice winter-tourist-season dates -- roughly running from early January through mid-March -- based on the fact that Hialeah, naturally, had outperformed its competitors the previous year and was considered the most reliable source of tax revenue among the three area tracks (Gulfstream and Tropical Park being the other two; Calder opened in 1971).

A 1971 legal challenge to the "Hialeah bill" succeeded in having it judged to be unfair to the other parks, which led to its repeal. A state commission was established to award dates to each track based on a set of objective criteria. The commission eventually was overwhelmed by the internecine struggles of the South Florida tracks, and disbanded in the mid-Eighties. Since that time Gulfstream Park and Calder Race Course have usually applied for and received their preferred dates from the state's Department of Business and Professional Regulation. Gulfstream has a virtual lock on the January to March racing season, and Calder, though relegated to the sport's slowest period in South Florida, is awarded more racing days (about 170 between May and December) than Gulfstream and Hialeah combined. Hialeah has had to settle for exclusive rights to the mid-March to mid-May dates.

Some would say Hialeah has been lucky to get that. "Four years ago," remembers Martinez, "I went to the Florida Senate and worked out the current agreement." Essentially the mayor lobbied to save Hialeah Park. The legislature passed a law requiring any track operating outside its assigned period to pay a double tax penalty to the state, effectively preventing Gulfstream and Calder from competing head-to-head with Hialeah in the spring. Without the penalty, there's every reason to believe Hialeah -- which had to close its doors temporarily in the late Eighties when horseracing was first deregulated and the parks were free to race against one another -- would go out of business. Permanently. The legislation expires this year.

"All we want is a free-market economy," says Scott Savin, general manager of Gulfstream Park, sitting in his second-floor Gulfstream office. Dressed in a stylish brown sport coat and taupe-colored mock turtleneck, the youthful Savin is an unabashed disciple of what he calls "entrepreneurial capitalism." Deregulation, he says, should be the horseracing industry's primary goal. "Three hundred sixty-five days," Savin says, stressing the number for effect while stealing a glimpse at the television set that remains on throughout the afternoon, carrying live broadcasts of Gulfstream's races. "Everybody runs whenever they want."

Savin would like Gulfstream's 2002 season to run from January 3 through April 24. Two days later, Calder would open its doors. Savin knows this would essentially finish Hialeah Park, but for him these are the rules of the game in any business. "Walgreens doesn't go to the government because Eckerd opens a store across the street," Savin offers, plucking an example out of the air. "Hialeah is looking for the State of Florida to keep them in business."

Brunetti doesn't deny he needs help, or that Gulfstream and Calder enjoy certain natural advantages over his park. Both Gulfstream and Calder are located near the county line between Miami-Dade and Broward and are easily accessible from either direction. Gulfstream sits on U.S. 1 in Hallandale, while Calder is on NW 27th Avenue in North Miami-Dade, just up the road from Pro Player Stadium. Both are close to the condo-canyon snowbird and retiree populations that now make up the bulk of the sport's patrons.

But Brunetti resents the lip service paid to free-market mechanisms by Savin and other major-track operators. The truth, he'll tell you, is that Gulfstream and Calder benefit from an unusually cozy relationship with each other. "Calder and Gulfstream say free enterprise," recites Brunetti. "Well, fine. File for dates against each other. Why do they only file for Hialeah's dates?" Brunetti thinks it's because the two tracks and the corporations that own them have agreed (unofficially, of course) to divide the South Florida market between themselves.

The Hialeah Park owner believes the solution is not in less regulation but in more. "Why does every other sport regulate the number of home and away games, broadcast revenue, and player drafts?" he asks, barely pausing before answering his own question. "Because it's better for the sport if everyone can compete." The analogy to other sports is a popular one in and around Hialeah Park. "The state needs to take a look at the industry as a whole," says Steve Bovo, the park's director of marketing, "the way Major League Baseball does."

Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez, whose office entryway is decorated with scenes from some of America's most famous racetracks, including a black-and-white crowd shot of the 1937 Widener Challenge at Hialeah Park, believes that may be wishful thinking. "Trainers and owners all love Hialeah Park, but nobody stands up for Hialeah anymore," he laments. "There are no more Woody Stephenses, no more John Galbreaths." In other words no more sportsmen in the classic mold -- only moneymen, owners, and general managers who view the sport, and their interests, in strictly mercenary terms.

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."

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.

The result was a setting for horseracing that was like no other in the world: a palm-lined entrance road leading to a sweeping, ivy-covered clubhouse in the style of a French chateau. And what other racing oval surrounds a manmade lake stocked with exotic birds, including pink flamingos captured in Cuba and successfully bred in captivity?

Almost instantly the park, for the wealthiest winter residents of Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties, became the place to see and be seen. Many made the trip in private train cars, stopping just south of the main gate. Photographs of Joseph Kennedy accompanying his daughter-in-law Jackie to the races, and of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill strolling the grounds, still adorn the clubhouse walls.

More than simply a meeting place for the rich and famous, though, Hialeah Park over the years became the national capital of winter racing. In 1948 Hialeah's season produced Citation, the horse that went on to win the sport's three biggest races that year: the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes.

Still one of only eleven horses ever to win the so-called Triple Crown, Citation also became the first horse to win a million dollars in prize money, though the accomplishment came at a price. Following his Triple Crown triumph, the champion thoroughbred suffered an ankle injury and spent the 1949 season in the barn. Instead of retiring the horse, however, his owners insisted on racing him the following year. Running on stubborn animal pride, losing as often as he won, Citation finally managed to reach the million-dollar mark in career winnings in 1951. A bronze life-size statue of the horse, set atop a marble pedestal, today stands in a pond of water lilies, watching over the western entrance to the Hialeah clubhouse.

The Fifties and Sixties probably were the park's -- and the sport's -- golden era, with an average daily attendance of 15,000 to 20,000 spectators paying to watch horses like Nashua (winner of the Preakness and the Belmont in 1955), Needles (winner of the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont in 1956), and Northern Dancer (winner of the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness in 1964).

In the Seventies Hialeah confronted the same hard reality as other tracks. The sport's long-time fans were dying off, and potential new fans were being lost to other forms of entertainment. Horseracing, which had enjoyed a long run as one of the nation's most consistently popular spectator sports, had failed to develop any kind of aggressive marketing strategy, an oversight that eventually began to take its toll.

Hialeah Park, though, had an additional obstacle to overcome: the popular perception of the surrounding city as a depressing, even unsafe urban landscape of strip malls and factories. "People were like, “Get away from that Cuban city; it's dangerous,'" remembers Raul Martinez.

Then there were the jokes, even among Cubans themselves, that characterized the city as a kind of exile purgatory. One of these went, roughly, like this: A Cuban-American father, having just purchased a lottery ticket, tells his young son that if his ship should come in, it'll be a life of nothing but beautiful women, champagne, and Paris from then on. "But Daddy, what if you don't win?" asks the pessimistic child. "Well," his father answers, "then I'll just have to settle for your mother, Budweiser, and Hialeah."

The name that only twenty years earlier had evoked horseracing and high society, by the end of the Seventies had become the punch line to jokes about the local working class.

"Even before I came to work here," remembers Steve Bovo, sitting in his office on the second floor of the Hialeah Park clubhouse, "Hialeah Park to me was part of that historical Greater Miami, like the Fontainebleau Hotel, like the Eden Roc." Bovo, who grew up in the area, is not only the park's director of marketing but, since 1998, a member of the Hialeah City Council.

"I walked in here for the first time," recalls Bovo, "and I couldn't believe how beautiful it was." It is, he says, the city's Central Park. Bovo's job, in many ways, is to trade on the park's architecture and mythic past, to drum up other kinds of business during the ten months of the year when there is no racing. Weddings and birthday parties have become an increasingly important source of income.

According to Nilda Terrace, Bovo's assistant and the park's events coordinator, these bookings are what keep Hialeah going. "We host two, maybe three dozen weddings a year, depending," says Terrace, standing by the fountain that serves as a favorite backdrop for many of the ceremonies. "And I don't know how many quinces."

The park began hosting these events in earnest in the late Seventies, an acknowledgment of both the declining profitability of horseracing and of the transformation of Hialeah itself into a predominantly Cuban city. "The Latin people all insist on booking receptions for Saturday, because the [Catholic] Church won't marry on Sunday," explains Terrace, an energetic woman in her fifties partial to patterned blouses and large jewelry.

She shows off the various rooms available to the public, emphasizing the most attractive features of each. The moderate-size, reasonably priced Nashua and the considerably larger Citation are on the upper floors of the clubhouse, overlooking the grounds. Across from the clubhouse, standing by itself, is the Flamingo Pavilion. At almost 10,000 square feet, the room is large enough to hold 500 people. "That's the one Mr. KC is renting for his party," Terrace points out, referring to the Hialeah-born lead singer of the Sunshine Band. "He's going to have his 50th birthday party there. Lots of famous people have been invited." She begins to tick off the names: Raul Martinez, Gloria and Emilio Estefan. Pause.

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.

"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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Gaspar González