Friday, December 4, 2009

Hialeah Asks to Run Thoroughbreds

By Jim Freer

In letters it sent Dec. 1, Hialeah Park is asking other pari-mutuels in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale market for permission to start running Thoroughbred races during its Quarter Horse meet that extends through next Feb. 2.

Those substitute Thoroughbred races are not permitted for Hialeah’s meet under current Florida laws, according to the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering. Marc Dunbar, an attorney who teaches gaming law at Florida State University, said he agrees with that regulatory agency’s interpretation.

But Brunetti said he believes two provisions of Florida’s pari-mutuel law are “contradictory,” and that he plans to use one provision to pursue his request to start running Thoroughbred races. He said he and his attorneys had not determined whether and how they might make a request to the Florida DPMW.

Hialeah’s last Thoroughbred meet was in 2001. The track was closed until it began its initial Quarter Horse meet Nov. 28.

Brunetti said Thoroughbred races could help Hialeah Park economically. He noted that handle has been “disappointing” during the first four days of the Quarter Horse meet, when fields have been small because some horses are still being shipped from other states.

Brunetti said he was not aware that Calder Race Course on Nov. 30 cut off access for horses to ship in for stabling or to race until Dec. 14. Calder took that step as a precaution while it has quarantined three barns after one horse that previously was stabled there was diagnosed with Equine Herpes virus (EHV-1).

Calder on Dec. 1 indefinitely postponed the $100,000 Tropical Turf Handicap (gr. IIIT) and $100,000 My Charmer Handicap (gr. IIIT), adding that it plans no other schedule changes.

Brunetti said the timing of his request to run Thoroughbred races at Hialeah was “coincidental” with the situation at Calder.

Calder, which is racing through Jan. 2, and Gulfstream Park, which will begin its season the following day, are among tracks to which he sent the letter.

Officials of those two tracks declined comment on Brunetti's letter. On the afternoon of Dec. 3, Brunetti said he had not received any response from either track.

Brunetti has not determined how many Thoroughbred races he would run per day. But he said he would give first preference to Quarter Horses, and that trainers of those horses understand and accept his plan.

His interpretation of Florida law is that one provision would permit Hialeah to run as many as half its races as Thoroughbred races during the 40-day Quarter Horse meet--if approved by all horse and Greyhound tracks within a 50-mile radius of his track.

The Hialeah, Fla., track estimated its overflow attendance was more than 26,000 on opening day, a Saturday when it offered free admission and free parking.

But most in that crowd were there for the event, and not to wager. Data from Equibase Co. shows total handle of $233,833 for eight races--about $29,000 per race. A breakdown between betting on-track and approximately 100 simulcast sites, including tracks outside Florida, was not available.

But, as Hialeah officials expected, handle and attendance dropped for the eight-race cards for the next three days.

On Nov. 29, a Sunday, handle was $111,928, and Hialeah estimated attendance was 3,000.

Handle was $103,261 Nov. 30 and $139,563 Dec. 1. An individual who was at Hialeah said crowds both days were less than 1,000.

One industry official said those numbers don’t seem low for a Quarter Horse card on weekday afternoons.

But on Dec. 3, Brunetti said he expected all-sources handle for days other than opening day would average between $150,000 and $200,000.

Brunetti has said he has already spent about $20 million in renovating Hialeah. He is hoping for enactment of a pending law that would enable the track to have a 50-50 mix of Thoroughbred races and Quarter Horse races.

Officials of the DPMW said that agency would not speculate on whether enactment of the pending law this month would enable Hialeah to start running Thoroughbred races during its current meet.

The pending law also would enable Hialeah to build a casino with Las Vegas-style slot machines.

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

Dunbar, a partner in the Pennington Law Firm in Tallahassee, said he is one of numerous observers who do not expect a resolution of the Seminole issue or enactment of the law this year.

Hialeah will resume its four-day-a-week racing Dec. 5.

During its first four days, Hialeah averaged about 6.75 starters per race.

Brunetti said that is partly because some horses have not yet arrived from Lone Star Park in Grand Prairie, Tex., which ended its meet Nov. 28, and from several other Quarter Horse tracks.

About 500 of Hialeah’s 800 stalls are occupied. If all stalls are not taken by Quarter Horses within the next week, Brunetti said Hialeah Park would admit Thoroughbreds for stabling and training on its dirt track.

“Wesley Ward is interested, and I hear that several other Thoroughbred trainers are interested,” he said.

“Hialeah has a wonderful surface,” Ward said. “I would look forward to the possibility of having horses there.”

Ward said that could include stabling and training, along with racing, it if is permitted. Ward’s multi-state operation includes horses stabled at Calder. He is a regular at Gulfstream meets.

“If I raced at Hialeah, it would be with horses that did not fit (conditions) for races at Gulfstream or Calder,” he said.

The question of Hialeah being able to run Thoroughbred races during its current meet revolves around two back-to-back paragraphs in Florida racing law.

One paragraph allows a Quarter Horse permit-holder to run up to half its races as Thoroughbred races if it obtains written consent of all Thoroughbred, harness, and Greyhound Tracks within a 50-mile radius.

The second paragraph states that a Quarter Horse permit holder within 50 miles of a Thoroughbred track cannot run any Thoroughbred races while that other track is running a meet.

Gulfstream and Calder have a combined year-round schedule. Thus, the second provision prohibits Hialeah from running any Thoroughbred races, notwithstanding the first provision, Dunbar said.

Dunbar’s firm represents Gulfstream, its parent Magna Entertainment Corp. and several gaming industry manufacturers. He noted that Gulfstream and Hialeah were allies in passing the gaming law that has not been enacted. That law would allow Gulfstream to use its long-standing Quarter Horse permit to hold night racing--combining Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse races.

The pending law would remove the current law’s two provisions that restrict Hialeah from holding Thoroughbred races, for up to half its meets.

“I am making this request now to point to the importance of clearing up these contradictions and getting the new law in place,” Brunetti said.

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