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Final Run For Glory

A dispute over racing dates has Florida's storied Hialeah fighting for its very life

Everything appeared to be perfectly normal at Hialeah racetrack in Greater Miami last Saturday afternoon. The fronds of the royal palms waved gently in the balmy breezes, the bougainvillea was in bloom, and the grass was an emerald green. Hialeah, the dowager queen of Florida racing, looked splendid, a Mediterranean confection, all pink and white, and stylish as ever.

An hour before the start of the 59th running of the Flamingo Stakes, the pinnacle of the Hialeah season, the 600 flamingos that nest in the infield took flight, as they always do this day, gliding and wheeling above the racetrack to the strains of Flamingo played over the loudspeakers to a festive crowd of 17,617. At 5:14 p.m. a field of 14 3-year-old colts broke from the gate; when Cherokee Colony won by a length, going the mile and an eighth in an ordinary 1:49⅘ a red carpet was rolled across the racetrack and a sheaf of pink carnations was handed to winning jockey Jorge Velasquez. The horse's owner, Thomas Evans, declared it "extremely thrilling to win the first 3-year-old race of the year."

But something was definitely amiss. What, for instance, was so undistinguished a field doing in the prestigious Flamingo? ("These are third-rate horses," said trainer Woody Stephens, whose colt Cefis finished third.) Why was Forty Niner, the early favorite for the Kentucky Derby who is stabled at Hialeah, resting in his barn rather than running in the race? Why had the purse for the Flamingo dropped from $450,000 in 1987 to $250,000 this year? And why was the race, traditionally a major prep for the Triple Crown, being run on Jan. 2, only a day after the entrants turned three and much too early to suit the training programs of most top horses?

Like a wellborn woman who has fallen on hard times, Hialeah continues to keep up appearances, even as a close look reveals the mend in the stocking and the fraying hem. To understand how the disrepair came about, one need only look back to Jan. 15, 1987, when the five-man Florida Pari-Mutuel Commission met to determine the racing dates for 1987-88. The South Florida season is allocated in three blocks of dates: November to January, January to March and March to May. The middle dates are the most coveted because they come at the height of the Florida tourist season; the late dates are the second-most desirable. Throughout its 62-year history, Hialeah has always been awarded either the middle dates or the end dates.

Now, for the first time, the commission handed Hialeah the early dates (Nov. 11 to Jan. 7). Gulfstream Park, just 12 miles to the north of Hialeah and its longtime adversary, got the prime dates, while upstart Calder Race Course, which is even closer to Hialeah than Gulfstream is, for the first time was granted the end dates.

When the commission's decision was announced, many in the racing business declared it a deathblow for Hialeah. "Those dates are a disaster, no question," trainer Angel Penna Jr. told the Miami Herald. "I just don't believe Hialeah can survive with them."

Maybe not. Then again, maybe it can. The potentially ruinous tug-of-war between Hialeah and Gulfstream over the precious middle dates has been going on for years—and Hialeah's death has been augured before. Now that Calder has made it a three-way battle, the situation is further complicated.

Hialeah president John Brunetti stubbornly claims, as he has since he bought the track in 1977, that Hialeah cannot survive economically without the most lucrative dates. His track's situation, he says, is different from that of the other two. Brunetti is a real estate mogul, and his ultimate threat is that he may be forced to develop Hialeah's 219-acre site for other purposes. "A corporate park would be ideal," he says.

Sixty-three years ago, James Bright, who owned some swampland a few miles northwest of downtown Miami, and Joseph Smoot, an investor and promoter, put up a rickety clubhouse, a grandstand and a few barns on a section of the swampland occupied by a dog track. On Jan. 15, 1925, some 7,000 people showed up for the inaugural meeting of the track that was to become Hialeah. The track struggled along until 1931, when Philadelphia horseman Joseph E. Widener bought it and began to turn it into a showplace. He spent $2 million to build the clubhouse, landscape the grounds and import the flamingos. Widener's first flock didn't stay long. Thirty birds were flown in from Cuba and that evening were parading around the infield. The next morning the birds were gone. Someone had forgotten to clip their wings. Widener immediately wired for more birds, and, wings clipped, they remained to found the present flock (which doesn't have to have its wings clipped, because the track infield is its nesting ground).

In the 1930s and '40s, Widener made Hialeah the center of winter racing in the U.S. Among the great horses who have raced over the track are Citation, Nashua, War Admiral, Bull Lea, Needles, Armed, Tim Tarn, Graustark, Kelso, Bold Ruler, Northern Dancer, Buckpasser, Seattle Slew, Spectacular Bid and Alydar. In bygone days the big-name horses were matched by the celebrities and society swells who flocked to see them. Vanderbilts and Whitneys would board elegant railroad cars in Palm Beach and sip champagne until the cars arrived at the Hialeah clubhouse. "It was an occasion," says Joe Tanenbaum, a former newspaperman and now head of p.r. for Gulfstream. "It was like going to the Kentucky Derby, only it was every day." Among the luminaries who graced the clubhouse was Winston Churchill, who, upon seeing the track, declared, "Extraordinary!"

But trouble was brewing in paradise. In 1944, James Donn Sr. led a group that bought Gulfstream Park, a bankrupt track in Broward County. Donn's operation was an immediate success. Officials at Hialeah, sensing the new threat, dispatched influential citizens to Tallahassee, the state capital, and, as a so-called result, the Florida legislature passed the Hialeah Bill in 1947. Simply stated, the bill guaranteed the first choice of racing dates to whichever track produced the most revenue.

"The tragedy of that was whoever had the best dates always produced the most revenue," says Doug Donn, grandson of James Sr. and now president of Gulfstream. "It was a self-perpetuating thing. Gulfstream got locked into the end dates because we were always the second-best producer. And Calder was always the worst producer. It took away the competitive environment, and it created, for one track at least, the unfettered ability to continually dominate."

In spite of that dominance, Hialeah in the late 1960s suffered the decline in revenues and attendance that beset other U.S. racetracks. In the Miami area, thoroughbred racing has to compete with greyhound tracks, jai alai frontons, harness tracks and cruise ships with casinos. Hialeah was hurt all the more by a shift in population. The winter visitors—tourists and retirees—no longer could afford to stay in the big Miami hotels for a month or more as they used to. Instead they started buying or renting the condos that were popping up north of the city, near Gulfstream and Calder. Meanwhile, the area around Hialeah was deteriorating to the point that some people considered it unsafe.

As if all that weren't enough, in 1971, after making numerous attempts to have the Hialeah Bill overturned, Gulfstream finally succeeded. The Florida Supreme Court declared Hialeah's monopoly of the best dates to be unconstitutional and ordered the racing commission to give the '72 middle dates to Gulfstream, leaving Hialeah with the end dates. What followed this decision was political infighting that benefited no one except the lawyers. Hialeah continued to skid, and in 1975 a New York Times headline read: THE BUGLE AT HIALEAH LIKELY TO PLAY TAPS.

But in 1977, Brunetti, a New Jersey real estate developer, bought Hialeah for $13.3 million and was hailed as its savior. In a complicated deal he sold the track to the city of Hialeah and leased it back for 30 years. At the end of that period Brunetti has the option to buy Hialeah for $100; or, by paying off the $9 million lease, he can buy it back sooner.

Meanwhile racing dates remained a subject of contention between Hialeah and Gulfstream. In 1978 the two tracks agreed to alternate the middle dates for the next four years. But the feud continued, at times becoming preposterous. In February '81, Hialeah's director of operations, Angelo Testa, noted that the track's flamingos had not bred since '72, which he blamed on the interruption of the birds' March mating season by racing during the end dates. In mid-April, in a sudden reversal of form, the flamingos laid 60 eggs.

In 1983 Doug Donn, who had taken over Gulfstream five years earlier when his father died, offered Brunetti a compromise. Donn would give the middle dates to Hialeah permanently if Brunetti would reduce his racing days from 50 to 40. "It was very clear to me he would have been far better off financially under that plan," says Donn. "Plus, it would have solved everything." Brunetti rejected the proposal.

In 1985 Gulfstream and Hialeah announced yet another agreement to alternate the middle dates, this time for two years. Then came last January's unanimous vote by the racing commission to award the middle dates to Gulfstream and the early—and worst—dates to Hialeah.

The personalities of the two protagonists in this drama are as integral to the story as the politics. Brunetti, 57, is charming, volatile, outspoken and sentimental. He has changed track management with alarming frequency (since he took over, there have been seven racing secretaries, seven publicity directors and six general managers) even as he has sung but one song: "Hialeah cannot survive without the middle dates." When the racing commission doesn't sing along, he threatens to fold the show forever.

Donn, 40, is a dynamic businessman, essentially a bottom-line guy. He has made Gulfstream the leading revenue-producing track in Florida. Under his leadership Gulfstream has consistently outproduced Hialeah in both the middle and the end dates. When Hialeah ran the middle dates in 1987, its handle was a track-record $101,577,793. Gulfstream, which ran the middle dates in '85 and '86, had handles of $114,940,056 and $114,995,640, respectively. Hialeah's handle for the end dates in '86 was $67,983,461, while Gulfstream's end-dates handle for '84 was $83,410,031.

Consider how the two tracks presented their cases to the racing commission last January. Gulfstream hammered away with hard, cold facts and figures on attendance, handle and revenues. Hialeah, to the astonishment of those in attendance, showed a film. The shots of the elegant clubhouse, palm trees, flamingos, celebs and classy horses might have entertained tourists, but they left commission members cold. As one of them told the Miami Herald, "When the lights came on, we sort of just looked at each other."

"John is trying to bring back the 1950s," says Donn. "That's part of the problem with Hialeah. He's devoted his efforts to that and not to competing in the '80s. In the '50s you got a license and a racetrack and you didn't have to be a genius to make a profit. That's not the case today."

Brunetti retorts, "It's not just the [tax-revenue] dollars that flow into Tallahassee that matter. Do people want this track, the most beautiful racetrack in the world? Do they want this tradition? Is it any different from saving any great institution? I mean, they saved New York City. They saved Chrysler. They have a draft system in the NFL and the NBA to try to help those that need help. What's wrong with applying that here? I don't play political games. When my patience is over, I'm not threatening, but if things happen that are happening, I'll have no alternative but to make decisions."

Donn and his advisers say Brunetti is making money on the track—and investing much of it elsewhere. They point out that since 1983, Hialeah has made investments totaling more than $8 million in stocks, notes, mortgages, etc. "They used their resources and profits to invest in nonracing ventures," says Donn. "What kind of commitment [to Hialeah] is that? Any profits we've generated, we've put back in the business. And he hasn't."

Brunetti counters that, yes indeed, he has invested the track's money in ventures outside his track—to benefit it. "Hialeah Park invested $2 million in stock of Monmouth Park," he says.

"Within two years that yielded a profit of $2 million. All that money is put back into Hialeah. You can see that in our financial report. What Doug Donn is saying is, I'm taking the money and running, which is a lot of garbage."

But is Hialeah really poverty-stricken? Does it need the middle dates to survive? Not according to Erich Braun, the only holdover from the racing commission that handed Hialeah the worst dates last January. "First of all, I think Hialeah will continue to be a racetrack," says Braun. "It's going to survive with the undesirable dates. They'll still make a profit—not as big a one, but still a profit—as proven by Calder's success with the end dates."

One suggested answer to Hialeah's lament is a proposal that the track conduct a relatively brief big-purse Saratoga-type meeting calculated to preserve the dowager queen in all her glory. This scenario has Hialeah, perhaps under state ownership, running a three-to five-week meet during the high tourist season. Brunetti has spurned such a meet partly because of the limited time span. At a racing industry forum last month in Ocala, he offered another idea—that the state "retire" Calder's winter permit, cutting that track out of winter racing, and divide the winter dates equally between Hialeah and Gulfstream. However, this proposal won't be evaluated by the commission when it convenes in early February to set the racing dates for next season. All that will occur then will be another three-track free-for-all for the best dates.

Brunetti no doubt will present the same sort of ominous case he made last week: "I'll wait as long as I can, and then I'll make some very serious decisions, which, when made, will not be altered. And which, I think, will cause tremendous despair and loss to the state of Florida and the whole thoroughbred industry."

To anyone who knows Hialeah, the idea of it being plowed under for a corporate park is unthinkable. But as someone once said, "Nostalgia isn't what it used to be." God save the dowager queen. It may be that nobody else can.



The flamingos still strut in the infield, and tourists still bask in the sun, but how much longer they'll do so is difficult to handicap.



The colts in last week's Flamingo Stakes bore scant resemblance to entrants of yore.



Brunetti (top) and Donn disagree bitterly over the profitability of Hialeah, where management has staged a variety of promotions in hopes of improving the track's fortunes.



Madam Mary offers tips to the punters, Herman Combs adjusts the shoe board, and the great Citation, a reminder of the glory days, stand watch, as always, over the action.





With its less favorable dates, the odds are high that Hialeah's attendance will be low.