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The Last Pony Show

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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."

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Gaspar González