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Hialeah May Be Put to Pasture for Final Time : Symbol of sunshine and southern Florida growth reopens but faces competition.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Southern Florida without Hialeah Park is akin to Paris without the Eiffel Tower. It’s as though Boston closed the Commons or New Orleans canceled Mardi Gras. Padlock the gates and an era dies. Tradition and sentiment become just a pair of losing nags.

But that’s what happened. Hialeah--winter home to the rich and famous and some of the nation’s classiest thoroughbreds since the days of the Calvin Coolidge presidency--fell victim in 1989 to dwindling attendance and for 23 months was shut down tighter than a cheapskate’s wallet.

Across its 220 acres, where purple bougainvillea vines climb long trellises and 60-foot-tall Australian pines line the bridle trail, the flamingos still took flight each afternoon and the French Mediterranean buildings reminded you of a nobleman’s palace. But if you wanted to find a horse and relieve yourself of a few dollars, for the first time in 64 winters you didn’t do it at Hialeah. You went across town to Calder or Gulfstream.

But not now. Hialeah is back--although this could be its last season. It reopened Nov. 10 after track officials made a pitch to a new audience, increasing their advertising budget 20-fold in the Latino community and flying in from Brazil actress Maite Proenca, star of the popular TV soap, “Dona Beija,” for the festivities.

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The track’s marketing director, Bob Savage, figured he’d be happy if 15,000 showed up opening day and would do a dance if attendance hit 20,000. And dance he did. The crowd that greeted the track’s rebirth--an opening day record of 30,000 paying customers, who bet more than $2 million--was so unexpected that officials had to open the gates and let thousands in free to clear the crush of bodies at the turnstiles.

“Here we’re in a big recession and something like this comes along,” said John Van Lindt, general manager at Hialeah, whose annual meet accounts for 4,000-plus jobs and millions of dollars in state and local revenue. “It was like the sun breaking through on a bleak winter day, a shot in the arm for everyone.”

When Hialeah opened as the Miami Jockey Club in 1925, the guests included humorist Will Rogers, singer Al Jolson, New York Mayor Jimmy Walker and actress Gloria Swanson. “Never was there such a setting for the coronation of the sports of kings,” gushed the Miami Herald. Eight months later, Hialeah (population 1,500) become an incorporated city. The fact that parimutuel wagering was then illegal in Florida seemed to disturb no one.

For many years, the name Hialeah was synonymous with Miami’s winter sunshine and the development of southern Florida. Las Vegas then was a way station, Arizona a backwater. Miami was where the action was and elegant Hialeah was where Miami’s moneyed visitors spent their afternoons. The track prospered through the ‘60s and as recently as 1987 drew an afternoon crowd of 40,000 that bet $5 million.

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But Hialeah today is in competition with the two other Miami-area racetracks as well as dog tracks, jai alai frontons, the state lottery and numerous professional sports teams and amusement parks. More important, Florida deregulated horse racing in 1989, leaving it to track operators to decide among themselves who got the choice “middle dates” during the winter tourist season.

John Brunetti Sr., Hialeah’s owner, and Bert Firestone, who owns Calder and Gulfstream, were unable to reach an agreement, and Hialeah and Calder ran head-to-head. With a less desirable location and a barnful of second-rate horses from the Midwest, Hialeah ended up second best, sometimes drawing only a thousand bettors and handling less than $100,000 in wagers. Twenty-seven days into the meet, Brunetti admitted defeat and closed the track.

This season Hialeah has an exclusive 50-day meet while Calder is closed to resurface its track. Brunetti wants the state to again regulate the industry and establish racing dates.

With Miami’s tourists having moved northward up the coast in recent years, everyone agrees the area can not support two tracks at once. Unless Brunetti prospers this season and gets exclusive dates for next, the town of Hialeah (population 160,000; 85% Latino) may lose its most famous landmark.

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“We’ve identified 14,000 hard-core bettors from Palm Beach south,” Van Lindt said. “They’re the backbone, and they’ve done all they can in terms of attendance and handle. This is an industry built on tradition, but you can’t pay lip service to the past. What we have to do is increase our pull beyond the 14,000 and bring in new racing fans.”


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