Hialeah Racetrack to Reopen?
By Margaret Foster | Online Only | June 24, 2009
The owner of Hialeah Park Racetrack, a faded South Florida landmark that hasn't hosted a race since 2001, announced last week that the park could reopen as early as this December.
But preservationists and an investor who wants to buy and restore the 1925 facility fear that owner John Brunetti's plan to race quarter horses at Hialeah may not be enough to ensure the racetrack's revival.
Entrepreneur and businessman Halsey Minor, who wants to buy and restore Hialeah, has called Brunetti's racing plan a distraction. In an Apr. 15 statement he said: "The quarter horse proposal merely distracts the public's attention from the deplorable condition of Hialeah Park Racetrack and is an insult to the people of Hialeah, who are accustomed to hosting the finest thoroughbred horses in the world." In February, Minor and Save Hialeah Racing, Inc. filed a lawsuit against Brunetti and the city of Hialeah challenging the 2004 transfer of the track's title.
Quarter horses, once bred for running distances less than a quarter-mile, are raced at only 100 racetracks, mostly in the Southwest. Florida state law allows businesses to operate poker rooms if they host at least one quarter horse race each year. Critics suggest that Brunetti, who wants to introduce gambling at Hialeah, used that loophole when he obtained a quarter horse permit in March. To many enthusiasts, permitting quarter horses to run at Hialeah would be akin to authorizing miniature golf on the greens of Augusta National.
Hialeah was once considered a crown jewel in the racing world. Harry S Truman and Winston Churchill watched races at Hialeah, and the track hosted legendary champions such as Seabiscuit and Citation. But Hialeah's historic stables were demolished in 2002, and the racetrack's remaining Mediterranean-style structures continued to deteriorate. After Brunetti proposed a condo and retail development onsite, the National Trust for Historic Preservation added the park to its list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in 2007. (The city later turned down the condo project.)
Brunetti, who began leasing the 220-acre property from the city of Hialeah in 1977, remains optimistic about his current plan.
Nevertheless, two key challenges complicate Hialeah's future: the park requires millions of dollars in essential repairs, and Brunetti says that he needs to operate slot machines at the park to guarantee profitability. A gambling bill has not yet passed the state legislature.
Opponents of the quarter-horse plan, who insist that the park can only reclaim its past glory if thoroughbreds race there once again, point to an additional hurdle: Brunetti holds no valid thoroughbred racing permit.
"It is such a magnificent place. We just really want to see it restored," says Becky Roper Matkov, president and CEO of the Dade Heritage Trust. "This [plan] is a first step, but it's not a guarantee."
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