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May 22, 2007 | Last chance for Hialeah Park

The greats of horse racing ran here, at historic Hialeah Park, skimming past the finish line at a track so beautiful it once inspired Winston Churchill to utter a single word of praise: "Extraordinary!"

Now the place is shuttered, hurricane-damaged, dying. The owner reluctantly has drawn up housing development plans. It seems the grand dame of racing, once the center of Miami society, is down to a last chance at salvation: slot machines.

Fittingly enough, it's a long shot. Even the mayor of Hialeah calls it an uphill battle. But the idea that surfaced earlier this month to bring slots to the grand old park with its iconic flamingos has provided the first glimmer of hope in years.

If that means canned applause from Wheel of Fortune slot machines takes the place of pounding hoofbeats, so be it, preservationists say. Better slots than bulldozers.

"It would be hypocritical of us to oppose it. It's all gambling, whether it's horse racing or slots or both, " said Alex Fuentes, a Hialeah resident who founded Save Hialeah Park last fall. "We just want to save the park, with slots or without. It's too important to lose."

Adding to the group's drive for preservation: knowledge that the owner's current development proposal would pave over the famous oval track, demolish many of the buildings and replace them with 3,750 housing units and shops. Race track memorabilia would be contained in a museum built from the clubhouse.

The slots idea burst briefly to life in the Legislature earlier this month, when lawmakers were trying to cut a deal for property tax relief. Slot machines at parimutuels across the state would supply new cash to make up for some lost by reducing taxes, lawmakers suggested. Miami-Dade County's parimutuel owners already had been considering the idea, possibly putting slots before voters this fall.

The legislative session ended without a deal but legislators are going back to Tallahassee in June for a special session on property taxes. Hialeah's mayor said he'll be there, fighting hard for slots at Hialeah plus a return of the track's defunct racing license.

"This is important for the history of Hialeah and all of South Florida, " said Mayor Julio Robaina, who calls himself "the No. 1 lobbyist" for the city. "It's a little short-sighted to think this is only about horse racing."

The track closed in 2001, after racing rules changed and it could no longer compete with two other tracks. Owner John Brunetti says he can't hang on much longer, with costs on the 220 acres running more than $1.5 million a year and not a penny coming in.

So it has come to this: the aristocratic old track with its blue-blood pedigree and listing on the National Register of Historic Places trying to blend gracefully with the high-tech, bleeping, clanging carnival of a casino.

It's hard to picture, but Brunetti is willing to try. He's waiting to see what happens next month in Tallahassee.

"A tremendous amount of work would have to be done to refurbish the place but nothing's impossible, " he said. "From a personal and family perspective, Hialeah Park has been a part of too many important things in South Florida for us not to give it another try."

The track is in contention for the National Register's annual list, America's Eleven Most Endangered Historic Places. Miami historian Arva Moore Parks recently called it an "architectural and botanical masterpiece." None of that, however, protects the property from development.

Brunetti bought the famous track in 1977 because he owned horses and loved racing. Despite his plan to develop the land, horse-racing is where his heart remains, he said.

"We've been fighting the mighty fight for 30 years, in good times and in bad, and still high on our priority list is the continuation of racing at Hialeah, " he said. "When we bought it, it was a calling."

At 76, though, Brunetti said it might be time to admit the race track's day is over. The property encompasses 220 pastoral acres surrounded by a wall in the middle of Hialeah where 79th Street ends. With its easy access to Metrorail, it could be developed into a housing and retail mix similar to City Place in West Palm Beach, he said.

His proposal currently is before the South Florida Regional Planning Council. After the council makes its recommendations, the plan still would need city approval.

"Quite honestly, I'm getting tired. I finally decided a year or so ago, let's get ready for development, " he said. "It's the natural course of events so we've been looking into it. But reality is hard for people to accept sometimes."

'THERE'S A PRICE TO PAY'

He said preservation groups like Save Hialeah Park are well-intentioned but don't offer concrete solutions. "We all want to go to heaven but there's a price to pay and no one wants to pay it."

He wouldn't set a price for the land. "That depends on its use."

Hialeah, which opened Jan. 25, 1925, boasted top horses -- Citation, Seabiscuit, Seattle Slew. It was the first track in the U.S. to feature a turf course and the first major track where a woman jockey, Diane Crump in 1969, was allowed to compete against men. Over the years, it was patronized by everyone from Jackie Kennedy to J.P. Morgan and Joe Louis. Famous jockeys rode the mile-and-an-eighth track -- Eddie Arcaro in the 1940s, Angel Cordero Jr. in the '60s.

Patrons traveled for miles to see the French-inspired clubhouse, the flamingo fountain, the rows of sky-high royal palms imported from Cuba and the traditional flight of the flamingos, when the birds -- also brought from Cuba -- circled the track at the seventh race.

Today, the birds still cluster on the far side of the Hialeah Park racing oval, 370 at last count, still an improbable pink. The grandstand and clubhouse remain, aristocratic bones apparent even beneath layers of purple bouganvilla and crumbling stone. The horse stables are gone, torn down, but the tree-canopied lane to the track looks just like the old pictures, dappled in sunlight.

Esteban "Steve" Bovo is the asset manager for the track and also president of the Hialeah City Council. He witnessed a decade of racing on the property before it closed, met his wife there and married her there, too.

He knows the secrets of the track: the staircase to nowhere, the royal palms that sometimes sport Santeria offerings at the base of their trunks, the concrete tunnel in the parking lot to whisk cars invisibly away from patrons. "This place is full of nooks and crannies, " he said.

Walking the echoing concourses, he pointed out the old cigar room, the saddling paddock, the weighing station for jockeys, the Directors Room -- nicknamed by the staff as the cheaters' room because that's where they took visitors with a need for discretion.

"Everybody came here, " he said. "If Joe Dimaggio came in, you knew he didn't like to be bothered, so you left him alone. . . . You'd have a socialite sitting next to a blue collar worker. Anything could happen."

How does he feel seeing Hialeah Park today? "Melancholy."

PASSIONATE CITIZENS

Hialeah evokes passion in its fans, none less than trainer Jean Friedberg, who worked at Hialeah from the 1950s until the last racing season in 2001 and called it "the most beautiful track in the world."

Friedberg has drawn up a detailed plan with his partner and horse owner, Gina Silvestri, that he thinks might make the track financially viable. It includes a horse training facility and apprentice training program for the trades, financed through grants, contributions, stall rents and other sources.

"It's criminal to just let that wonderful track turn into another development, " he said. "It could be a self-sustaining organization once again."

But it's possible -- even likely -- that no plan will be enough to save Hialeah Park when lawmakers return to Tallahassee in June. Slots might not even come up.

And if they do, Sen. Dennis Jones, head of the Senate Regulated Industries Committee, says Hialeah shouldn't be considered because it no longer has a current racing license.

"All the parimutuels should be treated the same, restricted to those that have licenses, " he said. "Hialeah was a non-starter to me."

Would he ever reconsider?

"If the president of the Senate told me to or I was removed from the chairmanship. . . . I've never been wishy washy about it."

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