Is America’s Greatest Track Back?

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Michael Vasquez of the Miami Herald…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

HIALEAH PARK PUSHING TO RETURN TO ITS FABLED GLORY DAYS

MIAMI, FLORIDA – When Dennis Testa looks over the plans for Hialeah Park’s billion-dollar restoration and expansion, he’s armed with his expertise as an architect and engineer, but perhaps more importantly, his memory.
Lots of South Floridians have a personal connection to Hialeah Park, but Testa knows this place like it’s his own lushly landscaped backyard. For many years, it was.

Testa’s father Angelo spent decades working at the track and managing its physical upkeep as general superintendent. The whole family — grandma included — lived on-site in a three-bedroom superintendent’s cottage.

It was more than a half-century ago — May 20, 1958 — that the Testa clan traded in New Jersey winters for life at one of the world’s most beautiful racetracks.

“I had just turned 7,” Dennis Testa said, recalling his initial reluctance to move. “I cried all the way down here.”

Eventually, the magic of these 220 acres took over.

“All of a sudden, this was kind of like my special playground,” Testa said. “I’m 12 years old, I’m driving the tractor out on the track.”

These days, Testa is steering a lot more than a tractor — he’s Hialeah Park’s vice president of operations, a point person in the facility’s massive quest to reinvent itself. The track started its second season of racing quarter horses last week.

Over the next decade, Hialeah Park owner John Brunetti hopes to add a slots casino, a hotel and nongambling entertainment options, such as a movie theater or bowling alley.

If successful, Hialeah Park’s transformation would mark a remarkable turnaround for a National Historic Landmark that in recent years seemed destined for the wrecking ball. The track closed in 2001 — and stayed closed for eight years — after continued struggles to compete with other local horse-racing venues such as Gulfstream Park.

Hialeah may have once been hailed as “extraordinary” by Winston Churchill himself, but Gulfstream is located far closer to the ocean, and therefore, the tourist dollar.

Even now, after Hialeah’s unexpected reopening last year, the track is hindered — and may well be killed again — by competing parimutuels. Calder Race Course, Flagler Dog Track and Miami-Jai-Alai have challenged Hialeah’s legal right to slot machines, which are an essential piece of the park’s construction plans.

When Florida voters in 2004 approved a constitutional amendment granting slots to Miami-Dade and Broward parimutuels, Hialeah (closed at the time) was not on the list of tracks that would receive them.

But the Florida Legislature passed a wide-reaching gaming bill last year that essentially retroactively added Hialeah as a slots-qualifying facility.

“The Legislature isn’t allowed to hand out private perks to a particular individual or company,” said attorney Michael Olin, who represents Flagler and Miami Jai-Alai. Olin said the purpose of the lawsuits is to protect “the will of the people” as expressed in the voter referendum, though he acknowledged that additional slots casinos could hurt business for his clients.

While under this legal cloud, Hialeah has nevertheless applied for its slots license with the state, which remains pending. Architectural drawings are still being drawn up, and space cleared, but there are limits to how much the track can proceed with its plans given the current uncertainty. For now, the goal is to at least add slots and poker by this time next year.

Brunetti, in describing the driving force behind the suits, said, “to be kind, I would say competition. To be realistic, I would say it’s jealousy and greed.”

Without slot machines, Hialeah Park has little long-term chance to succeed, says Dennis Testa’s father, Angelo, now 90 years old.

“Racing isn’t what it used to be,” the elder Testa said. “It’s not a profit business.”

After passing along Hialeah Park’s operational responsibilities to his son, Angelo Testa stayed on for years as a semi-retired advisor to Brunetti. He only fully left the track after its 2001 closure.

“That was sickening,” Testa said of watching it shut down. “I still can’t take it out of my mind to think that this place would be closed. . .it was my life.”

For the moment, Testa is impressed that Hialeah has been able to get itself back into racing shape, though the track is hosting less-glamorous quarter horses rather than the thoroughbreds that made it famous.

Brunetti hopes to add thoroughbred races in the future.

Quarter horses are hardly a money-maker for Hialeah.

The track lost between $6 million and $7 million during its 40-day racing season last year, Brunetti says, and expects to be similarly in the red this year.

But the niche status of quarter horses made it easier for Brunetti to obtain racing permission from state regulators. It was a way to get the doors open again, and hopefully build from there.

Once Brunetti made the decision to resume racing, one of the first orders of business was to round up former employees who might be willing to come back.

Brunetti first called Dennis Testa, who quickly said yes. The younger Testa had replaced his dad as both general superintendent and, later, director of operations for 14 years before Hialeah’s sinking fortunes led him to take a similar job at Gulfstream, followed by work as a private racing consultant.

“I’m kind of old-fashioned,” Brunetti said. “I believe in traditions. I believe in loyalties. . .there’s so much of the Testa family here.”

Angelo Testa can easily point out areas of the track — from a row of royal palm trees to the concrete base that houses the track’s famous statue of Triple Crown winner Citation — and say he was the one who put that there.

And underneath Citation’s right front hoof, hidden from view, is a half-dollar coin that Dennis Testa mischievously slipped in — a long, long time ago. In another part of the track, one of Hialeah’s stately trees is carved with the initials of Dennis Testa and his old high school sweetheart.

Fresh out of college, Dennis Testa had been eager to leave Hialeah Park and make his own career path.

As a young man in his 20s, he spent time designing bridges with the engineering and architecture degree he’d earned at the University of Florida. He returned, only to leave again when the track’s luck began to sour.

But now’s he’s back once more, determined to make his mark on Hialeah this time by guiding a reconstruction plan he says will add plenty of bells and whistles, while also preserving the historic beauty at Hialeah’s core.

Both father and son settled blocks from each other in Pembroke Pines.

Neither views Hialeah as just another racetrack, or in Dennis Testa’s case, just another job.

“This is my home,” he said. “I still consider it my home.”

WHAT’S YOUR TAKE?

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