Hialeah Park poised for historic return with poker

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From the contemporary world and all of its modern technology, to the historical and classical styling of yesteryear, the new Hialeah Park Casino and Poker Room will have it all.

When I got my behind-the-scenes tour in early July, and with a projected opening still three weeks away, the traditional racetrack was a beehive of activity by designers, construction workers and landscapers as the long-term vision of John Brunetti was quickly becoming a reality. For those who visited the facility during its heyday in the second half of the 20th century, the familiar pink accents will once again be recognizable, while modern comforts also will be a welcome sight.

The track has attracted political and entertainment dignitaries over many decades since opening in the early 1920s as a greyhound track and switching over to horse racing a few years later.

However, it was after Joseph Widener, an heir to a streetcar fortune, bought the property in 1930 that it really took shape. Along with architect Lester Geisler, Widener created the European flourishes in the buildings and the lush landscaping around them, and brought in dozens of pink flamingoes to live on the infield of the track.

Sweeping staircases and tree-lined paths were copied from traditional English and French tracks, while the terraces and balustrades of the clubhouse were reminiscent of the casinos of Monte Carlo. Several U.S. presidents, such as Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, FDR and JFK, made numerous visits, while celebrities such as Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Will Rogers often enjoyed themselves along with Winston Churchill. The greatest names in horse racing history, from Seabiscuit to John Henry, raced in front of massive crowds.

But changes in the social landscape of South Florida and increased competition from Gulfstream Park and Calder Race Course would doom Hialeah Park. Brunetti bought the property in 1977 and presided over some of Hialeah’s most profitable seasons, always hoping to bring in casinos and create a wide-ranging entertainment attraction. He fought hard against competitors and politicians to continue advancing his dream, but when Florida deregulated operating dates at the turn of the century and Hialeah lost its mid-winter exclusivity, an angry Brunetti shut down the track after running his last thoroughbred race in 2001. Three years later, the Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering revoked his thoroughbred permit.

But Brunetti refused to give up his dream as Hialeah Park reopened with quarterhorse racing in November 2009, launching a now-successful plan to install slot machines.

With a target opening date of July 23, South Florida will again be treated to the combination of traditional and modern beauty on the nearly 300 acres between Palm Avenue and East 4th Avenue. With slots on the first floor and the cardroom on the second, Phase 1 will be under way. The 12,000-square-foot poker room will be gorgeous and roomy, with 24 tables and three dominoes tables, leaving plenty of room for big crowds. An outside terrace is huge, awarding players on break with a great view and/or a comfortable place to smoke.

With former Gulfstream president/GM Steve Calabro heading the gaming operation and Nelson Costa (former director at Casino Miami Jai-Alai) hired in June as the director of poker, there’s plenty of experience at the top. Costa, a long-time resident of Hialeah, understands the balance needed to manage a room in a multi-cultural area.

“We will be lenient in the beginning, but as far as the effect on the games, we will be completely following the rules in order for us to grow, and we want everyone to be comfortable,” he said about the language differences in South Florida. He also promises to attract an upscale clientele by offering a VIP area, including rental safe-deposit boxes for regular patrons and special charging stations to accommodate the latest technology. Costa said he has been given the green light to aggressively attract new customers with a combination of high-hand promotions and large-guarantee tournaments and will open the room with a substantially seeded royal-flush jackpot.
In addition to the $200K in beautiful lighting fixtures and about 60 big-screen TVs, there will be plush, comfortable couches and a large bar connected to the playing area. The first Sunday will feature a multitable tournament with a $10K guarantee, and shortly after opening, a $50K guarantee deepstack tourney with a $20K first prize will get things rolling with six opening sessions.

Costa also promises $300 high hands every 15 minutes in the early mix, plus a special “Cash For All” promotion offered on Fridays with the high hand awarded every three hours, giving $400 to the winner and $100 to everyone else at that table.

There will be a transportation option that no other casino can offer: The Hialeah Metrorail station is near the edge of the property, granting convenient access from most parts of Dade County, including Kendall and downtown Miami.

The new slogan for the facility is “Hialeah Park: Now & Forever.” We can forgive them for the eight-year period when the place went dark and we temporarily lost one of the true jewels of South Florida.

— Big Dave Lemmon is Ante Up’s South Florida Ambassador. Email him at bigdave@pokeractionline.com.