Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Glory Days and Hialeah Park

An inescapable factor for those who admit to a passion for Thoroughbred racing, with all its pomp and circumstance, its triumphs and its tragedies, is the wonder of renewal.

Three-year-olds prep in winter for the Classics of Spring, followed by the bookended summer glory of Saratoga and Del Mar, the coming of age in fall, the Breeders’ Cup and crowning of champions.

Immediately after the last glass of Christmas is raised, the future comes into clearer focus with the rekindling of prime time Santa Anita, Gulfstream’s championship session, and regeneration begins in earnest.

Suddenly it’s New Year’s Day: Happy Birthday equine friends, time has come to regroup, renew, rinse and repeat, as the game has for centuries, not only here but all around the world.

Once upon a time, Hialeah Park, a glorious racing cathedral, was a racetrack that provided the kind of high-profile focus the sport needs if it’s to deliver on its promise of endless summers at the races.

The dream that was Hialeah died decades ago. The man who made it possible, John J. Brunetti, passed a fortnight ago. So, now what?

Over a series of three days, I saw racing’s renewal process over the course of a single weekend. It began at a small racetrack on the Redneck Riviera. The Tampa Bay Derby, the new kid on the classics-prep block, was offered for a 38th time.

The voice of the first one, Tom Durkin, was in attendance to cheer on Untamed Domain. As a small part of the West Point syndicate, it was time to see whether the gifted sophomore turfer belonged on the Derby trail. He handled the dirt, not the competition.

The next time I saw the acclaimed race caller, he was hosting a memorial service for Hialeah’s visionary track owner, known to those closest to him as JJB.

“Memorial services, by definition, have a sense of finality,” Durkin began. “…But legacy has nothing to do with finality. Legacy is about the future. And JJB’s legacy is prodigious.”

“…Were it not for Mr. Brunetti,” he continued, “You probably would be seated in a parking lot of come soulless strip mall.

“Instead, solely because of him, solely because of his tenacity, solely because of his unshakable will to do the right thing, today you are in a place of never-to-be-imagined-again beauty and grandeur.

“… Myself, dozens of you, indeed hundreds of you, will come to owe Mr. Brunetti an inexpressible gratitude for the opportunities he has made possible, life changing opportunities.

“I was the track announcer here many years ago. Mr. Brunetti stuck his neck out, laid his own reputation on the line to give a virtual unknown the opportunity to perform on the big stage.

“Believe me, in 1981, Hialeah was a very big stage. There are a hundred JJB stories like mine.”

As I walked through the grandstand into the clubhouse, I thought about the time John Brunetti went out of his way to make his new paddock analyst feel welcome. It was a two-year stint, the first and only racetrack job I had after leaving Newsday.

It was while I was a Newsday racing writer that I first met Durkin. Had to tell him how much I enjoyed his race descriptions, expressing that I didn’t miss a second of the action while I sat with my feet up on the moat that surrounding Citation’s bronze image.

And I also thought of the day I took Toni to Hialeah for the first time to see the storied race course and a magnificent equine called Turkoman. The feature was the six-furlong Tallahassee Handicap and it marked the seasonal debut of the 1986 handicap champion.

The 17-hands beast spotted super-fast Beveled a ton of weight and a 10-length stretch lead, but Turkoman ran him down with giant strides in 1:08 1/5. His momentum was such that he galloped out one mile in 1:32 3/5, two ticks off Dr. Fager’s then world record.

All the moments flashed as I listened to family recollections of Brunetti’s two sons, John Jr. and Stephen, who worked for their father when I was there. Durkin was made an offer by The Meadowlands and moved on, making way for another newcomer, Frank Mirahmadi.

I knew of JJB’s charitable reputation but did not realize Hialeah was Miami University’s main corporate sponsor of their sports programs, or that he founded an organization at St. Thomas University that was one of the first to battle the scourge of human trafficking.

At the conclusion of ceremonies, hundreds of attendees were invited to stand at the clubhouse rail and, after all were gathered, Durkin intoned, as he had done many times before; “ladies and gentlemen, the flight of the flamingos.”

As I looked around it was impossible not to notice all the warts that time has wrought, even as the marble floor of the first-floor clubhouse glistened under foot. Stephen Brunetti’s expressed the hope that the family would keep JJB’s legacy of Red Oak Stable and Hialeah Park alive.

At a reception after the service, I saw my old boss, Rick Sacco, of the famed New Jersey racing family that he worked for the Brunettis for decades. “So, Rick, do you think the boys will make good on Stephen’s promise?”

“We’re working on it,” said Hialeah’s now General Manager. And so the weekend ended with the hope that one day, Thoroughbred racing’s circle game will be renewed at 2200 E 4th Avenue, hard by recently dubbed John Brunetti Way, in the city of Hialeah.

HIALEAH, FL, March 19, 2018

Written by John Pricci

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