Best unintentionally funny line of the week came from John Brunetti, the owner of Hialeah Park. Discussing a conversation he had with Halsey Minor about the technology wizard's interest in buying and reviving the shuttered South Florida racetrack, Brunetti was quoted in a trade publication as saying: “I have told him that in some ways I don't think he understands this business.”
Does Brunetti think he understands this business? How could he? If he did, how did he let Doug Donn outsmart him on every move and get control of the best winter racing dates for Gulfstream Park? Why did state legislators and regulators turn their back on him? How did Calder crush Hialeah in head-to-head competition? Why did Brunetti raise take out to the point that he chased away any remaining horseplayers Hialeah had? Why has the track sat empty for more than seven years?
It's a mortal lock that Hialeah will never reopen successfully with Brunetti as the owner and operator. I happen to think John Brunetti is a nice guy who loves racing, but I have zero confidence that he can revive Hialeah Park on his own (and I may be more optimistic than state officials or Florida horsemen).
Does Halsey Minor know everything there is to know about Thoroughbred racing? Of course not. But he comes to the game with passion, enthusiasm, capital and confidence that he can return Hialeah to some semblance of its past glory.
Brunetti isn't the only industry veteran who thinks Minor may be nothing but a dreamer if he thinks he can revive horse racing as a sport. I've heard from a number of racetrack executives and horse owners who said they've heard it all before. But what is the alternative for Hialeah Park or operating tracks that are hanging on by a thread? Lobby to get slot machines, turn the facility over to a casino company and hope it will subsidize the money-losing portion of the business indefinitely?
Should Brunetti and others in the industry just blow off this opportunity that Minor presents to give horse racing in the Miami area one last chance to stand on its own as a sport?
I remember when Frank Stronach came into racetrack ownership and said he would try to make the sport more compelling and entertaining. In the beginning, Stronach said he had no interest in getting slot machines at his tracks. But Stronach became a victim of his ego, forcing in too many of his own bad ideas and forcing out too many executives who dared to disagree with him. He almost seemed obsessed with getting control of as many tracks as possible without having any idea what he was going to do with them all.
Gulfstream Park was the first Florida racetrack to get slot machines. Under Stronach's vision, Gulfstream became the least successful slot machine operation in North America, based on the benchmark of dollars won per machine per day. Calder will be adding slots as early as 2009 after getting approval in a local referendum in January of this year. The rebuilt Gulfstream Park is more slots parlor and simulcast theater than it is a facility to host live racing. In short, it's a disaster.
Calder, built to host hot-weather summer racing, has always struck me as a cold and impersonal track, but it's never seemed colder or more impersonal than it is today. In a recent weekday visit there I stumbled across what seemed like no more than several hundred fans scattered throughout the first two floors (most of the third floor is closed).
Count on Churchill Downs management to pigeonhole those fans in as small an area as possible once the slot machines are installed and plugged in. Racing at Calder will become secondary, though its purses will be healthier than they are today because of the slot subsidies. But what will Churchill Downs management's long-term vision be for racing at Calder?
Minor said he has no interest in bringing slot machines to Hialeah Park. The competition for slots players is intense, with the Seminole Native American tribe holding the market share advantage at their Hard Rock Casino in Hollywood, Fla. Minor wants to focus on the excitement of racing and the fact that it's the only sport you can legally bet on.
Racing needs people like Halsey Minor, and people in the industry should be doing everything possible to help him succeed.
Copyright © 2008, The Paulick Report
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