Sunshine State Running Against Itself : Horse Racing: After the Breeders' Cup is over, the problem of overlapping competition will have to be addressed.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When John Brunetti, the owner of embattled Hialeah Park, made a concerted but unsuccessful attempt last year to get the lease to run Del Mar, many South Florida horsemen were rooting for him.

They hoped that if Brunetti got Del Mar, he would concentrate his racing interests in California and abandon Hialeah, which under his stewardship has ceased being the dowager queen of Florida racing.

"The vote out there went to 3-3 before we lost," Brunetti said the other day. There was pride in his voice.

Brunetti thrives on being the underdog, and just as he was the underdog in California, he's also the longshot in an ongoing three-track skirmish in Florida. It's a feud as inscrutable as the Bermuda Triangle, because the losers here have been the billion-dollar racing and breeding businesses, which are considered to be Florida's third-largest industry.

For three days, starting Friday at Gulfstream Park, Hialeah's archrival, Florida will be the center of the horse racing world. The highlight of the stakes-filled weekend is Saturday's Breeders' Cup, seven races worth $10 million that will draw many of the best horses from the United States, Canada and Europe.

The Breeders' Cup will be shown on national television for 4 1/2 hours, betting on the races will be available at more than 120 sites around the country, and a crowd of more than 50,000--a Florida record--will be at Gulfstream. The horse-of-the-year title should be settled when Easy Goer and Sunday Silence run in the Breeders' Cup Classic, in what is expected to be a rematch of the unforgettable Preakness battle that went to Sunday Silence by a nose.

Doug Donn, the general manager of Gulfstream and a member of the family that owned the track for three generations before it was recently sold, is busy but euphoric right now, throwing himself into preparations for a day that will stretch Gulfstream's undersized plant to the seams. Donn was at track at 7 the other morning, in the grandstand, binoculars in hand, amid the Daily Racing Form clockers who were timing a workout by Easy Goer.

A question about the condition of Florida racing produced a frown and a sigh.

"When (Breeders' Cup weekend) is over, I'll show up Monday morning and start trying to figure that out again," he said.

No one has been able to figure out Florida racing for more than a decade, a period marked by bickering, battles over operating dates, court fights and personal attacks. The state racing commission grew so weary of trying to referee the squabbles that it deregulated the sport, hoping that the three tracks--Gulfstream, Hialeah and Calder--would compromise in the interest of self-preservation.

But the opposite has happened. The racing schedule in the next few months looks like a plan for mass suicide, because through next spring, two tracks will be running at all times.

Hialeah will open Nov. 18, even though a Calder meeting also is open and will run through Jan. 14. Calder will close and Gulfstream, which is only open this weekend because of the Breeders' Cup, will begin its regular season, competing against Hialeah through May 4. Hialeah will have two more weeks of overlap, with Calder, until May 20.

"We're like three guys in a boat with only enough food for two guys," Donn says. "I just hope Gulfstream isn't the third guy."

Thoroughbred racing's position in South Florida's pari-mutuel industry has already been weakened by competition from harness and dog tracks, jai alai frontons and a state lottery. Last Saturday, all within a 30-minute drive in the Miami area, Calder ran a thoroughbred card, Pompano Park was open for harness racing, the Biscayne Kennel Club conducted a day-night doubleheader and Dania Jai Alai, just up the street from Gulfstream, was in action.

It used to be that Hialeah regularly enjoyed the choice winter dates, from January to March, when the tourist season peaked. Hialeah was thought of as the crown jewel of Florida racing, with the Palm Beach swells arriving for the races in private railroad cars.

Hialeah is one of the nation's most picturesque race tracks. Listed on the National Registry of Historic Places, it is surrounded by stately palm trees, the grandstand has vine-covered walls, and 400 flamingos live there and fly over a lagoon in the lush green infield. The track has such natural beauty that tourists visit the grounds even when the racing season is over.

In the early 1970s, however, Gulfstream argued successfully that Hialeah should have no lifetime guarantee of the winter dates. In 1974, when a group headed by John Galbreath owned Hialeah, the track reportedly lost $3 million after it was forced to run the less desirable spring dates.

Jimmy Donn, Doug's father, was about to buy Hialeah in 1977, but at the last minute the track was leased by the city of Hialeah to Brunetti, a New Jersey construction man who was smitten by Hialeah's charms when he attended the University of Miami.

There was a fear that Donn might close Hialeah if he bought it, so Brunetti signed a $7-million, 30-year deal, and at the end of the lease he has an option to buy the track for $1.

The infighting over the dates has been furious ever since.

Both Hialeah and Gulfstream are capable of putting on first-class racing, but their environments more than their stakes programs have been responsible for shifts in business.

Hialeah, just north of Miami International Airport, is the fifth-largest city in Florida, with a population of more than 160,000, but many of its neighborhoods have declined and it is a place of dilapidated housing, warehouses, factories, and a high crime rate.

Gulfstream and Calder, on the other hand, are located in the upscale northeastern suburbs, near Ft. Lauderdale. Gulfstream, which is only a mile from the beach, has done considerably better than Hialeah with the winter dates, a development that prompted the racing commission, thinking about the state's share of the business, to favor the Hallandale track.

Brunetti, whose pervading argument is that Hialeah needs the choice dates to survive, is usually portrayed as the heavy in all this. A handsome, courtly man in his late 50s, Brunetti is also said to be tough to work for and has gone through at least half a dozen general managers.

"I didn't create this problem, I was the heir to it," Brunetti says.

The problem with Brunetti, according to Donn, is that he "always wants 60% of a 50-50 deal."

A new player in this triangle is Bert Firestone, an owner and breeder of horses who bought Calder last year for an estimated $60 million and recently added Gulfstream for a reported $75 million. Firestone and his wife, Diana, a Johnson & Johnson heiress, won the Kentucky Derby with the filly Genuine Risk in 1980.

In Doug Donn and Kenny Noe, the general manager of Calder and a respected racing executive, Firestone appears to have a solid management team, but Brunetti isn't comfortable with this ownership shift.

"Bert Firestone is an absentee owner and he doesn't breed horses in Florida," Brunetti said. "He has done the industry an injustice by taking over the two tracks. Bert is not a businessman, he's a horseman.

"When there is too much control in racing in one area, the area suffers. In California, Marje Everett brought Hollywood Park to its highest peak. But then she bought the other track (Los Alamitos, which was recently sold by Hollywood Park) and then Hollywood Park quickly descended."

Donn says that the state racing commission doesn't want to re-enter the battle, and he also dismisses a suggestion by Brunetti that George Steinbrenner might be able to restore sanity to the situation. Steinbrenner, owner of the New York Yankees and newly elected president of the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders' Assn., is a lot like Brunetti, in that both always seem to be in the eye of the storm.

"There's a lot of money in the Florida stallion program for breeders," Brunetti said. "There's room for economic bargaining, and that's the tool the breeders should use."

At Hialeah's spring meeting this year, the track averaged 7,500 in attendance and $1.2 million in handle. With the coveted winter dates, Gulfstream's averages were 13,000 and $2.4 million.

Late this summer, Hialeah's racing office was given the assignment of calling such renowned New York trainers as Woody Stephens, John Veitch and Angel Penna, telling them that their horses wouldn't be welcome at the track this winter. But in a state audit, Hialeah was said to have underpaid purses by about $800,000 last year, based on the share of the betting handle that horsemen legally should get, and the track's purse program has been drastically reduced for the season ahead.

Trainers such as Stephens, who has had the same barn at Hialeah for more than 40 years, have horses that will be too good to regularly run for modest purses.

Veitch, ironically, trains for the Galbreath family, which used to own Hialeah.

Before Hialeah made the decision for him, Veitch was debating whether to ship his horses to Hialeah or Gulfstream. He knew that Gulfstream, with its better purses, would be where most of his horses would run, but he also knew that Hialeah's racing surface, considered to be one of the best in the country, would be kinder to their legs. Last week, trainer Wayne Lukas' son, Jeff, handling several Breeders' Cup horses at Gulfstream, vanned them to Hialeah for what he thought would be more productive workouts.

Predictably, the Breeders' Cup group was brought into the Gulfstream-Hialeah feud a couple of years ago when the tracks both bid for Saturday's event. Brunetti believes that Hialeah lost out because John Nerud, one of the founders of the Breeders' Cup six years ago, favored Gulfstream. Donn says that Gulfstream was chosen because the Breeders' Cup thought it would do a better job of putting on the races.

"Nerud lobbied strongly against us," Brunetti said. "He was carrying somebody's water on his shoulders."

In Brunetti's office, there is a nameplate that reads: "One-Man Show." But even that one man is getting weary over Florida racing's interminable civil war. Using a pet analogy, Brunetti says: "I'm trying to carry water on both shoulders."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
59°