An Internet tycoon wants to return Hialeah Park to its glory days and revitalize horse racing at the same time.
BY AMY DRISCOLL
Hialeah Park, the star-crossed grand dame of horse racing, has an amorous and wealthy new suitor -- but it may not be mutual.
Internet entrepreneur Halsey Minor, who founded CNET.com and last year purchased a 476-acre estate in Colonial Williamsburg for $15.3 million, is interested in buying the shuttered, 220-acre track that once hosted such greats as Sea Biscuit and Citation. He wants to restore the South Florida landmark to its former glory and, in the process, help save the ailing racing industry.
''It's the perfect track,'' said Minor, who shares a passion for horses with his mother. ``It would be a crime to lose it as an institution. It's too beautiful; there's too much history there. How fitting would it be if this grand old track could be part of the rebirth of the sport?''
John Brunetti, a horse owner who bought the track in 1977 because he loved racing, said last week he's had one conversation with Minor and is open to more talks in August. But he also said he has no interest in selling the track, though it has remained closed since 2001 for financial reasons.
''I think he's well-intentioned, but I've just had the one conversation so far,'' Brunetti said of Minor. ``He's like I was -- it's a dream, a hope, to reopen Hialeah for racing. But I don't think he fully understands the politics and all the other things that would go into that.''
Brunetti said he knows first-hand the allure of the historic track, with its iconic flamingos, French-inspired clubhouse and rows of magnificent royal palms.
''Hialeah Park is a little tattered and torn but everyone always talks about how much they love it, what a wonderful and beautiful place it is,'' he said.
Damaged by two hurricanes, the track would need between $25 million and $50 million in renovations to make it usable again, he estimated.
Yet, he said, ''I'm not interested in selling it.'' Nor does he want a partner, he added.
Brunetti has talked for years about developing the property. He's had discussions with Hialeah city officials and has drawn up plans that would save some of the historic buildings but use most of the land for housing. He has said repeatedly that he can't continue to pay property costs that run to at least $1.5 million a year.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places and named last year to the register's list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places, Hialeah Park, which opened in 1925, has a storied history and blue-blood pedigree.
Miami historian Arva Moore Parks called it an ''architectural and botanical masterpiece.'' Winston Churchill was so moved by it, he uttered a single word of praise: ``Extraordinary!''
None of that protects the property from development. Surrounded by a wall, the track is located in the middle of Hialeah where 79th Street ends. With its easy access to Metrorail, the property could be developed into a housing and retail mix, Brunetti has said.
Hialeah Mayor Julio Robaina said that though he hasn't heard from Minor, he is eager to talk to the Internet tycoon.
''I've been around long enough to know that there are many people who have approached Mr. Brunetti to try to make a deal but haven't been able to,'' Robaina said. ``If this is a deal that would be able to attract people out to the park again, and if there is a plan for the park to regain its beauty, then the city would definitely lend its support however we can.''
A future for the park that involves racing, he said, ``would be a great day.''
That possibility, however remote, has caused a stir among preservationists, too.
''We've all had visions of a Donald Trump or Jorge Perez stepping forward,'' said Alex Fuentes, founder of the Save Hialeah Park citizens group. ``This is even more exciting because this is a guy with a passion for the horse industry. . . . It's like the perfect storm of capabilities and backgrounds to make this really work.''
Architect Richard Heisenbottle, whose firm specializes in historic renovations, said that a recent tour showed the buildings at the track were damaged but still remarkably intact, information he passed on to Minor during a recent discussion.
`A DIFFERENT WORLD'
He described the grounds almost reverentially. ''As you go through the gates, you truly believe you are in a different world,'' he said. ``You have taken a step back in time to the days when horse racing was a grand and glorious experience. Hialeah exudes that ambience, that flair, that wonderful history.''
Minor, 43, is a thoroughbred owner whose horse, Fierce Wind, placed 10th in this year's Florida Derby. Horse racing, he said, needs heroes. It needs excitement and accessibility for average people. He wants people to see the sport as he does, as a real contest for greatness.
''You can't point your finger at any one person, but the institutions collectively are destroying horse racing,'' he said. ``I want to buy my own track, run it the way I want to run it and prove -- or disprove -- that there's a way to rebuild a fan-friendly experience where the fans connect with the horses.''
He has a great appreciation for the historic value of the Hialeah property, though he hasn't seen it in person.
''I've seen every picture on the Web, watched every movie that shows Hialeah Park. I've talked to many people who have seen the track fairly recently,'' he said. ``And I know it's getting more expensive every day to restore it. It's really bumming me out.''
Minor has said he is ''single-minded'' in his intent to save the horse-racing industry by making it more attractive to fans, a vision he has shared with his longtime friend, Bill Farish, chairman of the Breeders' Cup board of directors.
''He has a great passion to make the sport much more fan-based. He wants everyone walking through the turnstiles to get the same experience as a VIP,'' Farish said. ``For the average person, the daily racing form is like Greek. He wants to make it more understandable and build excitement.''
THE TOP CHOICE
Minor has said Hialeah Park is his No. 1 choice to make his mark on the industry.
``If I don't own Hialeah, I'll find a different place and build from ground up. But, boy, I'm going to do everything I can to get Hialeah Park. There's just nothing else like it.''
Minor has offered, half in jest, to build a statue of Brunetti on the property if he'll agree to a sale.
``I think we have common ground in that we both want to see the industry come back. I just hope that I can appeal to Mr. Brunetti to work with me to use Hialeah Park to begin mouth-to-mouth on the thoroughbred racing industry.''
Miami Herald staff writer Laura Figueroa contributed to this report.