DEAR JOHN…AN OPEN LETTER TO JOHN BRUNETTI
Are you nuts? I mean, seriously, how do you want your legacy to read?
John J. Brunetti, the savior of Hialeah Park, the man who fought the establishment for years after buying the South Florida track in 1977, resisted the temptation to sell the historic grande dame of racing to developers, and kept fighting the good fight until a white knight came along to help him achieve his dream?
John J. Brunetti, the irascible real estate developer who bought Hialeah Park in 1977, ran it into the ground, made enemies of nearly everyone in racing, and finally destroyed one of the world’s most beautiful racetracks rather than sell it in 2008 to someone with the vision, capital and passion to restore Hialeah Park as a thriving operation that merges the past with the future.
John, when you swooped into Miami from New Jersey in 1977 to buy Hialeah, many people really thought you were going to be a savior, that you would reverse the trend that began in the 1960s, when Hialeah business began to decline and the track started losing its unmistakable luster as the wintertime playground for northern snowbirds who loved to gamble or watch their own horses run amidst a park-like atmosphere that included a daily flight of pink flamingos in the track’s infield. This was the park about which English statesman and Thoroughbred owner Winston Churchill uttered one word: “Extraordinary.”
But true saviors have a plan, John. You didn’t. Frequent turnover of track managers and racing office personnel led to a confused operation that continued Hialeah on its downward path. You pleaded endlessly with racing commissioners for the best winter dates (January through March) that Hialeah once owned, but had no strategy other than nostalgia for keeping those dates. Meanwhile, Doug Donn at Gulfstream Park was putting more effort and money into marketing his track, and the positive results, as measured by handle and tax dollars to the state, led the commissioners to give those cherished middle racing dates to the Hallandale racetrack. You were shuffled off to the second-best dates at the end of winter, and, eventually, to the third-choice early winter dates in November and December.
Sports Illustrated said Donn came to one racing commission dates meetings in the late 1980s armed with facts and figures to support Gulfstream’s case for the best dates. John, you showed a movie depicting Hialeah’s glory days that left commissioners shaking their heads. Then you begged for a bailout.
“John is trying to bring back the 1950s,” Sports Illustrated quoted Donn as saying following one dates battle. “He’s devoted his efforts to that and not to competing in the ’80s. In the ’50s you got a license and a racetrack and you didn’t have to be a genius to make a profit. That’s not the case today.”
John, when you inevitably lost nearly every battle with the racing commission or state legislature, when Donn and even Calder racetrack management outhustled and outsmarted you, when you rejected compromise after compromise, all you could do was threaten to close Hialeah and develop it into condominiums or an office park.
After deregulation came to Florida’s racing industry, you tried going head to head with the other tracks and were pummeled at the pari-mutuel windows and turnstiles. When your revenue was running dry you jacked up the takeout rate to the highest percentage horseplayers had ever seen. You finally closed up shop and lost your pari-mutuel license.
In the middle of all this, while Hialeah was gradually being destroyed under your watch, you went out to California to make a pitch to officials there to win the franchise to operate Del Mar when the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club’s contract expired in 1988. Thankfully, your promise “to do for Del Mar what you did for Hialeah Park” didn’t resonate with state government officials.
John, you were the underdog in the fight against Gulfstream Park and Calder, and people love the underdog. But they didn’t love you because you alienated so many of us. You not only ticked off the horseplayers, you enraged horse owners to the point they filed suit against you for allegedly failing to live up to purse agreements.
Yes, there have been some highlights during the time you have owned Hialeah. There was the afternoon in November of 1990 when more than 30,000 spectators welcomed racing back after a self-imposed hiatus. Over the years there has been great racing, even without the prime middle dates that launched so many Triple Crown horses on the road to glory, including Citation, whose statue stands proudly near the grandstand.
Those days won’t come back under your watch, John, even though your friend, Frank Stronach, made it a lot easier for you, ruining Gulfstream Park by wasting hundreds of millions of dollars on a new casino/racetrack monstrosity that no one likes. Your track record speaks for itself.
However, Hialeah can be restored, if you’ll give this Internet whiz kid, Halsey Minor, a chance. I know you’ve said you’re not interested in selling the track to him or becoming his partner. Please reconsider.. Minor has a real passion for the sport, the same passion that led you to Hialeah some 30 years ago and keeps you breeding horses at your Florida farm and going to the races at Del Mar every summer. He has the capital to invest in Hialeah’s future. He has a vision for 21st century sports and entertainment businesses and the operational know-how to get things done.
John, we all feel nostalgic about what Hialeah Park once was, and I’ve seen your eyes mist up talking about it like it’s part of your family. Your heart has always been in the right place. Allow your mind to follow your heart, and your legacy will be assured as the man who did the right thing and led Hialeah Park back to its rightful place in racing history.
Tomorrow in the Paulick Report: Who is Halsey Minor and why does he want to bring Hialeah Park back to life?
Copyright © 2008, The Paulick Report
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