Once-proud Hialeah decaus in Florida sun

Without help soon, the track could face a date with developers

June 25, 2007|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Sun Reporter

HIALEAH, Fla. -- The pink flamingos are still here, huddled on a distant bank. But the 250 birds look lonely. It has been six years since Hialeah Park held a horse race, longer still since the times of weekday crowds of 30,000. In fact, weeds and scraggly grass have overtaken the turf and dirt courses, making them all but disappear.

And Hialeah Park itself could end up disappearing as anything that resembles a racetrack. Just 10 days ago the National Trust for Historic Preservation named Hialeah Park to its list of 11 Most Endangered Places.

The owner of Hialeah is taking what could be a final shot at restoring the track's racing license and dates. If that fails, Hialeah - once recognized as the most beautiful racing facility in the country - could become a condominium and shopping development.

Steve Bovo, asset manager for Hialeah's owner, the Brunetti Organization, said: "It's a last effort. ... Anyone else would have closed up shop long ago. It's like being on the Titanic and being the last people on deck."

Hialeah hasn't sunk yet, but its 200 acres show the signs of neglect. There are 12 office employees and a skeleton crew maintaining "as much of the grounds as possible," Bovo said.

The royal palms and banyan trees still provide shade throughout the grounds. The bougainvillea sprout live, colorful blooms, but as a Brunetti assistant unlocked a door to allow a reporter to stroll the grounds, she warned: "It's a very sad walk."

The track's decline is visible almost everywhere. The clubhouse and grandstand roof is streaked with brown rust. Windows in the upper levels are broken out, the impact of Florida's hurricane seasons. A distant building, once a restaurant, is closed and overgrown. The barns were torn down last winter because they had become safety hazards.

A gorgeous bronze statue of the great Citation, the 1948 Triple Crown winner, stands in a dry, unattended fountain. The green tote board behind him, its numbers askew, is silent.

"It's like watching a loved one inflicted with a terrible malady," said Hialeah's owner, John Brunetti.

Once upon a time, Hialeah - located about three miles north of Miami International Airport - hosted politicians, celebrities, military heroes and countless beautiful people.

The track, which opened in 1925, was the site of the Flamingo Stakes, in which Citation, Northern Dancer, Foolish Pleasure, Seattle Slew and Spectacular Bid set the stage for Kentucky Derby and Triple Crown glory.

Brunetti's office at the track is filled with memorabilia. His bookshelves are covered with pictures of visits to Hialeah by U.S. presidents, Joe DiMaggio, Winston Churchill, Lee Iacocca, Richard Dreyfuss, Milton Berle.

Brunetti said he bought the track 30 years ago from John Galbreath to prevent its sale to Gulfstream Park and closure.

"I took a chance when I bought it. ... It had been through four disastrous years and John was ready to give up the ship," said Brunetti, 76. "He encouraged me to take on the challenge, and we were gradually able to restore it ourselves."

The city of Hialeah was actually the $9 million mortgage holder until Brunetti finished paying off the loan several years ago. In its last formal appraisal, the property was valued in the mid-$40 million range, asset manager Bovo said, but since then Brunetti has been offered as much as $1 million an acre for Hialeah.

Bovo said the track got in trouble because it could not work out an agreement on operating dates with its rivals.

The blame game

Brunetti blames corporate owners at Gulfstream Park and Calder Park, Magna Entertainment Corp. (owner of Maryland's thoroughbred tracks) and Churchill Downs Inc., respectively, for refusing to cooperate, while others say Brunetti was the deal-breaker.

"It's hard to say exactly what happened," said Jean Friedberg, 87, a longtime trainer and retired businessman. "But he was obstinate. You don't usually get anywhere when you're obstinate, and he didn't. That's just the factual part of it."

Bovo, who is also president of the Hialeah City Council, doesn't deny Brunetti's toughness or that he's a difficult man with whom to negotiate. But he says he isn't the only one.

"Let's not kid ourselves," Bovo said. "None of these guys in the pari-mutuel business are choirboys. All of them are angling for the best deal for themselves.

"Getting a lasting deal between them is like getting a lasting peace between the Israelis and the Arabs. I'm not saying my guy is immune to it. He's as guilty as the others. ... But to blame him for what's happened here isn't right."

When the Florida legislature got out of the business of awarding racing dates, Gulfstream and Calder were free to grab the winter dates - January through March - that had been Hialeah's since its inception in 1925. Gulfstream, in Hallandale, and Calder, in Miami Gardens, are within a half-hour drive of Hialeah.

With bad dates, competition and a changing environment, both in the neighborhood and in the appreciation of horse racing, Hialeah's fate was sealed.

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