Sunday, November 29, 2009

Overflow Crowd Ushers in Hialeah Park Meet

Overflow Crowd Ushers in Hialeah Park Meet
Opening ceremonies at Hialeah; left: John Bernetti Sr, right: Hialeah Mayor Julio Robaina

Hialeah Park opened its Quarter Horse meet on Nov. 28 before an overflow crowd that track officials estimated at 26,874, based on turnstile counts at one of the entrances and the number of cars in parking lots.

"Ir waa everything that we hoped for," Hialeah Park president and owner John J. Brunetti said following the end of the eight-race card.

Before the start of the day’s races, he estimated the crowd was between 15,000 and 20,000. Earlier in the week, Brunetti had projected an attendance of more than 10,000 for the Hialeah, Fla., track’s first racing since its last Thoroughbred meet in 2001.

With its opening day in the books, Hialeah Park will hold a 40-day Quarter Horse meet through next Feb. 2 while hoping that Florida politicians will allow it to return to Thoroughbred racing, on a limited basis, and add a casino with Las Vegas-style slot machines.

"Today proves that there is an interest in racing being held here in Hialeah," Brunetti said. "This points out that Hialeah Park has an important place in the racing industry in Florida."

Racing industry officials joined racing fans and those out for an "event" on a clear day with temperatures in the low 70s.

Several complimented Brunetti on the work done since late summer to restore a large portion of Hialeah’s grounds and building.

"It looks beautiful," said Sam Gordon, president of the Florida Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association.

"It was amazing walking in here," said Thoroughbred trainer Tim Ritvo. "It was like a blast from the past."

Racing officials and fans watched and roared as Hialeah’s starting gate sprung open at 1:09 p.m. for the first race.

Definatly Maybe took the lead midway through the 300 yard race and beat London Express by three-quarters of a length.

Definatly Maybe paid $10.00, $4.40 and $3.80. The 2-year-old gelding is trained by Manuel Mata and was ridden by Jose Ranilla.

This Flights for You won the day’s feature $25,000 Bienvenido de Nuevo Stakes. The 4-year-old colt ran 300 yards in 15:32 seconds under jockey Thomas Byrd. He is trained by Donnie Strickland.

For opening day and all of its 40-day quarter horse meet, Hialeah has opened the clubhouse portion of its building but not the grandstand.

It was standing room only in the 6,500 seat clubhouse. Fans also were elbow to elbow in the apron area, and crowds milled inside on the first two floors.

A large crowd also was in the paddock area, many wearing souvenir tee-shirts. The supply of 10,000 shirts was gone prior to the first race.

Some observers said Hialeah’s building looked more modern and spruced-up than in 2001.

Hialeah had about 75 betting windows open -- with long lines for windows staffed by pari-mutuel clerks but shorter ones at self-service terminals.

Starting early in the day, there were reports of some fans being shut out from betting. Otherwise, there appeared to be no major glitches.

"We had a few wrinkles with the betting lines and some long lines for valet parking," Brunetti said. "But you have to expect a few things on a day like this. People understood that this was our first day back in eight years."

Many fans apparently were there for the event, and not for wagering. Most kept their seats and standing spots through the early races, soaking up the atmosphere on a day where Brunetti could not have asked for a better script.

But the festive day still left questions of how much wagering can be expected on Hialeah Quarter Horse races--on-site and at the more than 100 racetracks and OTB sites around the country that are taking its simulcast signal.

Data from Equibase show wagering of $31,400 on the opening day’s first race and of $32,500 on its feature. Wagering per race was from the $20,000 to $35,000 range. On-site and simulcast breakdowns were not available.

Brunetti said many of the opening day attendees are long-time racing fans, who will be back on a regular basis during the meet.

"There is pent-up demand for gaming" in Hialeah and neighboring parts of Miami-Dade County, he said.

Under its agreement with the Florida Quarter Horse Racing Association, Hialeah will pay total purses of $4 million--averaging about $100,000 per day.

Combining purses with costs of renovations, Brunetti has said he expects to lose $15 million or more preparing for and running the 40-day meet.

Last March 16, Hialeah received a Quarter Horse permit from the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering. It is a holding a 40-day meet, through next Feb. 2, with a hope that it will lead to a return of Thoroughbred racing and to a casino.

A pending state law would allow Hialeah to have up to half its races as thoroughbred races with the other half as quarter horse races in future meets. Under that law, Hialeah’s holding of Quarter Horse races also would permit it to build a casino with Las Vegas style slot machines.

Enactment of the law is being held up amid a dispute between Gov. Charlie Crist and the Florida legislature over terms of a gaming compact for the Seminole Tribe of Florida.