With one lung gone, Hialeah Park owner John Brunetti focuses on giving

Hialeah Park owner John Brunetti was away from the property for several weeks this summer, recovering from lung surgery. He bought Hialeah Park in 1977 with money earned from his construction business.
Hialeah Park owner John Brunetti was away from the property for several weeks this summer, recovering from lung surgery. He bought Hialeah Park in 1977 with money earned from his construction business.

John Brunetti is working harder to catch his breath this year. That’s what happens when you have only one lung.

Brunetti, owner of Hialeah Park, had a cancerous lung removed this summer and wasn’t much seen roaming the 200-acre property, which consists of a horse track and a casino. It’s his third major health issue — he had a triple bypass in 1996 and a kidney transplant four years ago — and he acknowledges he has become a little more reflective.

“I’m rounding third base and headed for home,” says Brunetti, a nonsmoker who turns 87 on Jan. 18.

With that in mind, Brunetti has tried to expand the reach of his foundation, created in 1974. He has long been a supporter of the University of Miami — not just athletics, but also medical research and higher education — and has recently branched into human-rights causes and even more medical challenges.

“I’m starting to expand the foundation, and a program for giving back,” he says. That includes working with State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle to fight human trafficking, working more with Jackson Memorial Hospital and supporting the Wounded Warrior Project and healthcare for those born with a cleft palate. The Brunetti Foundation also sponsored the local PBS airing of Ken Burns’ recent series, “The Vietnam War.”

“I’m growing my giving the way I grew my business,” he says. Then, tapping his heart, he says: “You have to ask yourself, ‘Where do you get your satisfaction?’”

Brunetti takes after his father, Joe, who immigrated to Brooklyn from Bari, Italy, with his wife. They had married as teens. Joe Brunetti worked “every possible job,” and raised his family in a one-room apartment. John and his younger sister shared an L-shaped couch, sleeping feet to feet.

Joe Brunetti eventually bought a lot for $50, then created a construction housing business. He built 7,000 apartments from 1946-53, when the U.S. was in a post-World War II boom.

John Brunetti, meanwhile, attended New York Military Academy — “my father said he wanted me to have a life better than his” — and tried school at Rutgers University with plans of being an architect or an engineer. He didn’t like it, and transferred to the University of Miami, graduating with a business administration degree in 1952.

He remembers being the only one in an apartment of five with a car, and as the youngest, he deferred to his roommates.

“Let’s go to the track,” he remembers his roommates saying one day.

“We went to Gulfstream, Tropical Park and Hialeah,” Brunetti says. “I loved Hialeah right away. It was breathtaking.”

That spurred his interest in horse racing, to the point that in 1957, he and his father split shares of a horse.

“I still remember the name. Vertex,” Brunetti says.

Meanwhile, he flourished in construction, building a business that includes 5,000 apartments in New Jersey and 3,000 in South Florida, leading the area in what is now known as garden-style apartments.

And in 1974, he heard the owners of Gulfstream Park were attempting to buy Hialeah Park from then-owner Bert Galbreath. So Brunetti called him, too.

“I said, ‘I’m just a little person, but may I come talk to you?’” Brunetti recalls. It took until 1977 to close the deal, and Brunetti said Galbreath, who he felt was rooting for him, accepting Brunetti’s mother’s $400,000 certificate of deposit as a down payment.

While Brunetti had an interest in horse racing, he also was doing well with construction. So while the story can now be reverse-engineered to make it look like a labor of love, he was also thinking business: 200 acres of park-like property in the heart of a city that could be used for homes, shops … just about anything.

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Nick Sortal AL DIAZ adiaz@miamiherald.com

Since then, the track has opened and closed twice, and Brunetti took a case for slots at Hialeah Park to the Florida Supreme Court, creating his share of enemies and critics. And, like most racetrack casino owners, he lobbies Tallahassee legislators for a lower slot-tax rate, the right to offer blackjack and other casino wishes.

But Hialeah Park has embraced him, he says, calling Hialeah Park’s grounds “the heart and soul of this city.”

“You come to America to do better things,” he says. “If you were a baker in Italy, you would be a baker for life. Only in America can you be what you want to be.”

And at this time of his life, he is focused on making sure he gives back. A health scare like the one he had will do that to a guy.

“Yes, it has made me more reflective,” he says. “No doubt about that.”

Mardi Gras poker

Mardi Gras Casino partially re-opened on Friday, with the north end of the first floor available for poker and simulcast racing bettors.

The casino has been closed since Hurricane Irma left water damage on Sept. 10.

Chief Operating Executive Cathy Reside said renovations will continue with a goal of early 2018 for re-opening slots, restaurants and entertainment areas.

Hard Rock winner

Michael Newman of Davie won the Seminole Hard Rock “Rock ‘N’ Roll Poker Open main event, collecting $374,240. The $3,500 buy-in event attracted 585 entries.

Newman, from Nanuet, New York, resides in South Florida. He worked on Wall Street during the early stages of his professional life, and now works in private banking.

Francois Zayas (Miami Springs) won the $360 Ultimate Re-Entry Series Opener for $107,973 and Ory Hen (Cooper City) won the $570 Deep Stack tournament for $44,255.

Michael Newman of Davie won the Seminole Hard Rock Rock ‘N’ Roll Poker Open main event, collecting $374,240. Courtesy/Seminole Hard Rock

Connie Francis entries

Entrants can win two tickets to invite-only “An Evening with Connie Francis & Friends” at Seminole Casino Coconut Creek via SeminoleCasinoCoconutCreek.com.

The show is at 8 p.m. Dec. 15, in celebration of the 80th birthday of Francis, singer-star of the 1960 Fort Lauderdale-based movie “Where the Boys Are.”

The event will feature The Rhythm Chicks, Deana Martin (Dean Martin’s daughter), Carol Connors and others. There will be video tributes and stories from Francis’ friends through the years.

Coming up

▪  98° performs at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Magic City Casino amphitheater as part of their 98° at Christmas tour. A portion of the ticket sales for this show will benefit Susan G. Komen Foundation. The group is promoting its new album “Let It Snow,” which consists of 12 Christmas songs. Tickets are $35 to $100 via magiccitycasino.com.

98° Press Photo
98 Degrees performs at Magic City Casino, with music from a new Christmas album. Courtesy/Magic City Casino

▪ Ahmed Elbiali and Jean Pascal vie in the main event of boxing card Friday night at Hialeah Park. Tickets are $30 via HialeahPark.com or 877-840-0457. The fights will be aired at 9 p.m. on FS1 and FOX Deportes.

▪ The Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino gives away $25 Best Buy gift cards to those who earn at least 10 comp dollars from midnight to 7 p.m. Thursday.

▪ The Isle Casino in Pompano Beach gives away a Mercedes-Benz CLA 250 at 11 p.m. Dec. 30. Two finalists for the final drawing will be selected every 15 minutes from 4-10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays in December.