by | 11.17.2010 | 12:46am

Dear John,

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.


Ray Paulick

Tomorrow in the Paulick Report: Who is Halsey Minor and why does he want to bring Hialeah Park back to life? 

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  • Matt

    I was hoping you would do something like this, Ray, and you didn’t let me down. Count me among the people that believe Mr. Minor can save Hialeh and possibly our broken industry if given the opportunity.

  • NancyBen

    A great article Ray. Mr. Minor’s ideas sound so wonderful. I have long advocated bringing the races back to the fans.
    Shorter time between races sounds great. However my most heartfelt suggestion is to encourage the fans to love the horses. They don’t have to be superhorses to love them. Assault was loved because the crowd knew that they would hear – “and here comes Assault”. In my youth, in Vancouver I remember loving a horse named Comiston because of his beauty – new penny chestnut with 4 white stockings and a large blaze. There was also Burma Pete, whose withers were so high that the saddle sat at a 90 degree angle.
    This may sound silly but a little personal attention from the horses connections might help. How about stepping off their pedestals and having autograph sessions. The only two other sports that I follow are rodeo and hockey and they both go out of their way to relay the personal touch to the fans.
    While I’m ranting let me add one more thought – has anyone ever adjusted the value of purses over the years to balance the value a horse has won. Seems to me that Man O’ War’s $300,000 plus in 1920 would compare rather favorably.
    Thank you for the joy you bring to my horseless life. Nancy Benstead

  • TomasinNM

    Well said Ray. I’ve been puzzling over this myself, what is Mr. Brunetti hoping will happen otherwise? Doesn’t make sense to say no to Mr. Minor in my view.

  • Muggs

    With all due respect to Santa Anita and Arlington, Hialeah is the most beautiful racetrack in America. Brunetti has been a tyrant that has made more enemies than the law allows. Mr. Minor may be a bit of a loose cannon but does anyone think he can do worse than Magna,Churchill,NYRA,and the CHRB?

  • The regular guy

    Ray – I love your pull-no-punches approach to your website and opinion. I pray Mr. Brunetti reads this and understands that you are applauding a positive effort to restoring a racing treasure, rather than just knocking his past. You can’t unring a bell.
    As Van Morrison said, “Let Flamingos Fly”.

  • Brigitte

    I agree with everything “The regular guy” said. I fear that Mr. Brunetti has come to a point in his life where he can’t see how his nostalgia is blurring his view of reality. He can’t see what the rest of the world can – that working with Mr. Minor can make his vision for Hialeah come true. Instead, by digging in his heels like a toddler in tantrum he’s made the rest of us shake our heads in disgust, believing a good swift swat on the rear would fix that. I too pray that Mr. Brunetti reads this and understands that working with Mr. Minor will ensure his name does not become a black mark on the white stands of Hialeah.

  • Pattie

    I agree with Ray, totally. I pray John Brunetti understands how much we LOVE Hialeah Racetrack & we will continue to fight, to save it. I grew up near Hialeah & I loved going to see the beautiful horses and the lovely landscaped grounds that surround the track. Hialeah is rich with history, so many famous horses, jockeys and trainers once raced there. Lucien Lauren had a barn at Hialeah & Secretariat spent two winters in a row training there prior to winning the Triple Crown in 1973. See books: “Secretariat” written by Raymond G. Woolfe, Jr. (who wrote for The Daily Racing Form) page 34, 2nd paragraph refers to 1972 training; page 69, 2nd paragraph refers to March 1973, training at Hialeah. AND “Ruffian A Racetrack Romance” written by William Nack (who wrote for Sports Illustrated), Page 30, last paragraph refers to Jan. 1972 training. I am proud of Halsey Minor for offering to save this Wonderful Historic Landmark of Florida and the people of Hialeah that keep the faith, the horses will return to race. God Bless Hialeah!

  • Sherry

    Wonderful letter to John Brunetti, Ray!

    I was fortunate to have worked on the backside for several years back in the late 70s/early 80s. My dearest friend was one of the morning outriders (she was the first woman outrider at a major racetrack in the US!). It saddens me to watch as Hialeah Park dies a little more each and every day. I was happy to see someone (Mr. Minor) step up to the plate with the financial backing and desire to bring Hialeah back from the decay and restore it to the grandeur it deserves!

    John Brunetti needs to lead, follow, or get out of the way!

  • […] sounded off this week on the saga of Hialeah Park, beginning with a Dear John letter to current Hialeah Park owner John J. Brunetti and continuing with a profile of Halsey Minor, the […]

  • Marcy

    My response is to Sherry #8. Regarding your friend who you say was the first woman outrider in the U.S.! Sorry, Sherry but I, Marcy Lee Valkanet, was appointed as the first woman outrider at Arlington Park in 1969, by no other than Marge Everett. Perhaps, your friend worked in the mornings at Hialeah, FL., while I was THE outrider in Chicago, Illinois. Let’s be clear about our facts. See the Chicago Tribune, summer of 1969. Thanks.

  • Anthony Garcia


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