Only eight weeks remain until the Kentucky Derby, and what we now have on our hands, folks, is a mess. If you think you can name the Derby favorite, there's a backstretch expression that covers that: "You ain't wrapped too tight." Last week at Hialeah three of the four top 2-year-olds of 1981, Deputy Minister, Timely Writer and D'Accord, all ran in the same race—nobody could remember such a thing occurring in a race leading up to the Derby—and what happened was amazing. None of them won. In fact, Deputy Minister, believed by some to be the best of the lot, finished dead last in the field of nine. The seven-furlong race was a new $25,000 event called the Flamingo Prep. A lightly raced colt named Distinctive Pro won the Prep just as he pleased, by 4½ lengths.
Obviously, a race called the Flamingo Prep should tell you something about this Saturday's $250,000 Flamingo, the first event before the spring classics to be carried on national television (ABC-TV). But guess who won't be in the Flamingo. Distinctive Pro. And, at best, perhaps only one of that highly touted trio will start. Still, a herd of horses will run in the Flamingo. How good they are only time and 1‚⅛ miles will tell. What the race should do, however, is further muddle the 3-year-old picture. Should you have a 3-year-old in your backyard, this is indeed the year to think about running in the Kentucky Derby. Look your horse over carefully. If it has a leg on each of its four corners, ship it to Louisville. This week word came from Kentucky that 387 horses (from Accoustical to Yrrahstar) have been nominated to the 1982 Derby.
Those who observed the 2-year-old situation in the East last year often found themselves slapping their knees in laughter. At Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga, 14 major 2-year-old stakes were run, and they produced 13 different winners. Unheard-of. Timely Writer and Deputy Minister were judged to be the best of the crop in The Experimental, a rating of the top 2-year-olds. But while Deputy Minister came in last in the Flamingo Prep, Timely Writer finished sixth.
A few weeks ago, Robert Brennan, the 37-year-old owner of the Due Process Stable, reportedly paid $6 million for a half interest in Deputy Minister. At that time the colt had won eight of nine races and was so highly thought of in Canada that he was made the even-money winter-book favorite for that nation's most important race, The Queen's Plate. Since Brennan put up his reported $6 million, Deputy Minister has run twice: He was fifth in his first start and then ninth in the Flamingo Prep. Racing, of course, is a gambling game.
Witness J.E. Jumonville Sr., who jumped into the game with both feet only last Friday afternoon. Jumonville, a former Louisiana state senator who lives in Ventress, La., became fascinated by a horse named Real Dare. So fascinated, in fact, that he bought it last Friday for a Louisiana-record $750,000. Real Dare had won five of its six most recent races by 13, 5, 10, 9 and 13 lengths. "I've always wanted a horse I could run in the Kentucky Derby," says Jumonville, "and I believe I bought him for less than he's worth." The next afternoon Real Dare ran in the $100,000 HITS Parade Invitational Derby at the Fair Grounds and won by 13 lengths. Real Dare earned $60,000, but Jumonville has $690,000 to go to get his investment back. He won't get it in the breeding shed. Real Dare is a gelding. The Kentucky Derby does strange things to people.
Nobody knows that better than the man who runs Hialeah, whose own future is as cloudy as the 3-year-old scene. And that's a shame. Hialeah is one of the world's great racetracks and a place of surpassing beauty. Longtime racing fans agree that the old place with the flamingos in the infield has never looked better than it does now, and those who train and own horses still feel that Hialeah is one of the best, and safest, tracks to school their charges. Yet once again Hialeah's "numbers" are disappointing. Last Saturday was Widener Day and 24,615 folks showed up, the biggest crowd to attend since Flamingo Day in 1975. But it was also tote-bag day and every paying customer was given a spiffy pink carryall. Overall attendance, however, is only so-so this year, and the betting handle has been disappointing.
Hialeah vies for racing dollars and dates with two other tracks, Gulfstream and Calder. Hialeah is the best known and the oldest, having opened in 1925, but not the most blessed. The racing wheel spins year-round in south Florida, and the racing dates are divided into three parts and parceled out to the tracks. Prime time means the "middle dates," from mid-January to the first or second week in March. That's when tourists arrive in Florida with money to bet. It's also the time when the best horses have come to Miami from New York, New Jersey, Kentucky and Illinois.
Once Hialeah had the middle dates exclusively, and it prospered: In 1956 the track averaged 20,825 customers a day for 40 days and 42,366 were on hand on Widener Day. But in recent years crowds of 20,000 have been rare, partly because in 1972 the Florida Supreme Court decreed that Gulfstream, in Hallandale, could have the middle dates in alternate years.
Gulfstream is in an area in which the population is growing daily; Hialeah is in a depressed area with a high crime rate. In the 10 years during which Gulfstream and Hialeah have alternated the middle dates, Gulfstream has handled $51.5 million more than Hialeah and drawn 220,058 more fans. To the state, it's the bottom line that counts, because Florida gets big bucks from the racetracks without doing much in return. Gulfstream is proud to point out that since 1972 it has put $4.3 million more than Hialeah into the state coffers.
Next year the middle dates swing back to Gulfstream, and Hialeah gets the so-called spring dates. In 1981, when Hialeah was open from March 7 to May 28, the meeting was dismal. The old grandstand and clubhouse aren't air-conditioned, and it can become quite uncomfortable. Last spring Hialeah's stubborn owner, John Brunetti, elected to run until the end of May—and almost nobody showed up. On the next-to-last day of the meeting, only 3,946 people attended and bet just $380,728. It was such a disaster that Brunetti, while assuring Luther Evans of The Miami Herald that Hialeah would remain open, said, "Through thick and thin, through rain and fog, through iceberg and hurricane, the Titanic will sail on."
Brunetti is one of the most controversial figures in racing. Five years ago he bought Hialeah when it was on the point of closing down. At the time he said it was his boyhood dream to own the track, and that if Florida lost Hialeah the racing industry would lose honor and prestige. He was first hailed as a savior, especially after he agreed to cooperate with Gulfstream on the middle dates. But not long afterward, Brunetti tried to get the middle dates back exclusively for Hialeah. Last week he asked the state legislature to give him from Dec. 1 to Feb. 24, 1983. That would have usurped Calder's traditional end-of-year dates. Brunetti's bill was defeated in the state senate 23-14, and that was the end of that.
Brunetti has tried everything to keep his dream alive, and even those who dislike him admire his gumption. For this meeting he came up with a gimmick called Tel-A-Bet; fans who put up a deposit of $100 can phone their bets in to Hialeah. The hope is that phone betting will up the mutuel handle considerably, but the best day so far has seen only $20,725 in such wagers.
"I had thought Tel-A-Bet would bring in between $30,000 and $50,000 a day," says Brunetti, "but the restrictions in the state are too severe. For example, you can't give out the result of a race—other than a stakes—until 30 minutes after it's over." That of course is kind of discouraging to bettors.
Is Brunetti now tired of fighting the good fight? "Absolutely not," he says. "I'm encouraged. I'm going to stick it out no matter how long it takes. If they get John Brunetti out of here, it'll be feet first. To my way of thinking, I can do the best job if I get the middle dates."
As Brunetti battles, a war of words goes on. There is even talk that Hialeah should be condemned and taken over by the state and operated as a "Saratoga of the South," with just 18 to 21 days of racing as opposed to its present 50.
Unfortunately, Hialeah's fate will probably be decided by people who have never seen its bougainvillea or flamingos. The capital-F Flamingo marks the end of Hialeah's 1982 season, and if the outcome is as confounding as that of the races that preceded it, well, it's been that kind of year.