John Brunetti, who fell in love with historic Hialeah Park on his first visit there as a college student in the 1950s and would end up owning the storied track for more than four decades, died Friday in Boca Raton.
He was 87.
One of the most prominent figures in the sport, Brunetti was both a horse breeder and owner and Hialeah’s stubborn owner, determined to restore the track to its former grandeur long after thoroughbreds stopped racing there.
In a sport built on gambling, Brunetti was often at odds with rival track owners, state and local politicians, and in the end became a long shot who always fell short despite repeated efforts to restore the famous track back to prominence.
Rick Sacco, who currently runs the Brunetti family’s breeding and racing operations in Ocala, said Brunetti had remained in contact with top officials for Gulfstream Park, hoping to work out a way to squeeze Hialeah back into the South Florida thoroughbred calendar — but to no avail.
“He was always calling them up saying, ‘Let’s come up with a dates solution where Hialeah could fit into the picture,’ ” Sacco said. “He always had hope.”
It was in 1957, while a student at the University of Miami, that Brunetti first became smitten with horse racing.
“We went to Gulfstream, Tropical Park and Hialeah,” Brunetti said in December of the three tracks then operating in South Florida. “I loved Hialeah right away. It was breathtaking.”
That it was.
In its heyday, before South Beach became what it is now, Hialeah was a showplace for celebrities, world and national leaders, and most of all, many of the greatest horses to ever step foot on a track. A statue of Citation still stands there as silent sentry, a permanent reminder of the past.
With its Mediterranean architecture, pink flamingos and rich history, Hialeah — which opened in 1925 — was dubbed “the track that made Miami famous.” The city’s first elevator was installed there.
Brunetti found it irresistible.
After building a successful real estate business in New Jersey, Brunetti bought Hialeah in 1977. For years, when the state was still regulating racing dates, officials for Hialeah, Gulfstream and Calder feuded for the best dates, taking their squabbling to Tallahassee and the courts on a nearly annual basis.
But after the state stopped assigning dates in 1989, enabling the tracks to operate whenever they wished — and with much of South Florida’s population and gambling dollars shifting north — Hialeah’s days became numbered.
Unable to compete in a head-to-head battle for business with the other tracks, Hialeah was left on life support. Cheeky Miss won the last thoroughbred race there on May 22, 2001.
While the track has survived with quarter horse racing and a casino, Brunetti longed for the return of thoroughbred racing — the “Sport of Kings.”
“He would never give it up,” said Howie Tesher, a retired trainer and one of Brunetti’s longtime friends.
Tesher described Brunetti as a “misunderstood” figure, someone who was combative to some but, away from the spotlight, quietly generous to others.
“He acted tough, but he was a sweetheart,” Tesher said. “A lot of people wanted to knock John Brunetti. It was always a fight for him. But he was always there for you. If a guy came broke to the race track and went to him for $10, he’d give it to him.”
Added Tesher: “He loved the game and he loved the people in it.”
Brunetti remained active in local business. He developed and owned King’s Court, a fronton and casino in Florida City.
Brunetti was involved philanthropically through his support of medical research and higher education. In 2017, he made a $2.5 million donation to St. Thomas University’s Human Trafficking Academy.
“I am determined to help educate others on human trafficking, provide support to trafficking survivors, and to stand up for the rights and the dignity that they deserve,” Brunetti said.
He also supported the Wounded Warrior Project and those born with a cleft palate.
Brunetti battled medical issues in recent years. He had triple bypass surgery in 1996, a kidney transplant in 2013, and last year had a cancerous lung removed.
“I’m rounding third base and headed for home,” Brunetti said in a December article for the Miami Herald.
But he remained in charge of Hialeah and continued traveling to tracks around the country, watching his horses compete.
Two weeks ago, a street bordering Hialeah was renamed for him.
A memorial service will be held in the Clubhouse on the third floor at Hialeah Park at 12:30 p.m. Monday, March 12.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests memorial donations be made to the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, Office of Medical Advancement, 1500 N.W. 12th Ave., Suite 1020E, Miami, FL 33136 or Old Friends Thoroughbred Retirement Farm, 1841 Paynes Depot Road, Georgetown, KY 40324.