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Once-proud Hialeah decaus in Florida sun

The Baltimore Sun

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.

History vs. location

Lou Raffetto, president and chief operating officer of the Maryland Jockey Club - which runs Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park - worked for Brunetti as Hialeah's racing secretary for three years in the 1980s. Raffetto said Brunetti once had "plenty of clout" in Florida government, but somehow lost it, and the Hialeah neighborhood, once the home of World War II veterans, came to be considered "a tough, dangerous area."

But Brunetti said: "What we had at Hialeah Park didn't disappear. It was beaten into submission by the forces of big business. Racing is like politics. Local. A little niche here and there. Calder had a facility that allowed year-round racing. Gulfstream had its location, and we had the history. We could have worked together to make a wonderful racing program."

Magna vice chairman Dennis Mills and Magna vice president Joe De Francis had a different take.

"I'd say Florida is one of the most deregulated markets for horse racing," Mills said, "and the free market prevails."

De Francis said: "Unfortunately, the area of South Florida deteriorated around Hialeah. In the face of that, Mr. Brunetti was not willing to make the capital investment in Hialeah as we did in Gulfstream and Churchill did at Calder.

"The people voted with their feet, and Gulfstream and Calder survived. But for Brunetti to be pointing fingers at Churchill Downs or Magna sounds like sour grapes."

"I used to go to Hialeah," said Michael Williams, 57, a South Florida resident who now goes to Gulfstream. "I lived a couple blocks from there in the 1970s. It was the best, most beautiful place in the world to go. There were thousands of people there. But then the neighborhood changed and it became hard to live there. ... But even after I moved, I kept going down. I'd take the train. On the last day it was open I was there. I don't think there were more than 1,000 people."

What's next?

So what is to become of Hialeah Park? There was hope that during this month's special session, the Florida House of Representatives would consider a bill that could allow slot machines - without local voter approval - at Hialeah. However, the session ended with no action on slots. Now, Hialeah mayor Julio Robaina is hopeful the legislature will take up the slots issue and the issue of returning a racing license to Hialeah Park during a special session, perhaps in September.

Meanwhile, there sits a 200-acre piece of property owned by an aging executive whose main business is construction, in the heart of the fifth-largest city in Florida, and it isn't generating revenue.

But a group of citizens in Hialeah, led by Alex Fuentes, a 29-year-old mortgage broker and real estate agent, wants the city's only piece of open space to remain a place that benefits the masses.

"How would a preserved clubhouse surrounded by condos, to be enjoyed by a privileged few, add to the facility's history?" Fuentes said.

"Hialeah Park is the only American icon left in [the city of Hialeah]. It is on the National Register of Historic Landmarks and deserves to be maintained as something that will add to its history, not totally wipe it out."

Fuentes' group envisions uses that will maintain and enhance the facility as it is - as a veterinary school that would allow the racetrack to be saved for use by horses in recovery, as a site for higher education or a site for museums.

"If I was in Mr. Brunetti's shoes, being significantly wealthy, I would not develop or anything," Fuentes said.

Friedberg, the trainer, said people seeing the track today have no idea what memories and feelings others have of and for it.

"That place was so wonderful a small trainer like me couldn't even get stalls there," Friedberg said. "Even famous trainers couldn't get stalls. People have memories of the sun coming up on those beautiful birds, of the way the light hit, just so. You can't imagine the infinite love for the place people have.

"It's a place with history and it could still be wonderful."

sandra.mckee@baltsun.com

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