But trouble was brewing in paradise. In 1944, James Donn Sr. led a group that bought Gulfstream Park, a bankrupt track in Broward County. Donn's operation was an immediate success. Officials at Hialeah, sensing the new threat, dispatched influential citizens to Tallahassee, the state capital, and, as a so-called result, the Florida legislature passed the Hialeah Bill in 1947. Simply stated, the bill guaranteed the first choice of racing dates to whichever track produced the most revenue.
"The tragedy of that was whoever had the best dates always produced the most revenue," says Doug Donn, grandson of James Sr. and now president of Gulfstream. "It was a self-perpetuating thing. Gulfstream got locked into the end dates because we were always the second-best producer. And Calder was always the worst producer. It took away the competitive environment, and it created, for one track at least, the unfettered ability to continually dominate."
In spite of that dominance, Hialeah in the late 1960s suffered the decline in revenues and attendance that beset other U.S. racetracks. In the Miami area, thoroughbred racing has to compete with greyhound tracks, jai alai frontons, harness tracks and cruise ships with casinos. Hialeah was hurt all the more by a shift in population. The winter visitors—tourists and retirees—no longer could afford to stay in the big Miami hotels for a month or more as they used to. Instead they started buying or renting the condos that were popping up north of the city, near Gulfstream and Calder. Meanwhile, the area around Hialeah was deteriorating to the point that some people considered it unsafe.
As if all that weren't enough, in 1971, after making numerous attempts to have the Hialeah Bill overturned, Gulfstream finally succeeded. The Florida Supreme Court declared Hialeah's monopoly of the best dates to be unconstitutional and ordered the racing commission to give the '72 middle dates to Gulfstream, leaving Hialeah with the end dates. What followed this decision was political infighting that benefited no one except the lawyers. Hialeah continued to skid, and in 1975 a New York Times headline read: THE BUGLE AT HIALEAH LIKELY TO PLAY TAPS.
But in 1977, Brunetti, a New Jersey real estate developer, bought Hialeah for $13.3 million and was hailed as its savior. In a complicated deal he sold the track to the city of Hialeah and leased it back for 30 years. At the end of that period Brunetti has the option to buy Hialeah for $100; or, by paying off the $9 million lease, he can buy it back sooner.
Meanwhile racing dates remained a subject of contention between Hialeah and Gulfstream. In 1978 the two tracks agreed to alternate the middle dates for the next four years. But the feud continued, at times becoming preposterous. In February '81, Hialeah's director of operations, Angelo Testa, noted that the track's flamingos had not bred since '72, which he blamed on the interruption of the birds' March mating season by racing during the end dates. In mid-April, in a sudden reversal of form, the flamingos laid 60 eggs.
In 1983 Doug Donn, who had taken over Gulfstream five years earlier when his father died, offered Brunetti a compromise. Donn would give the middle dates to Hialeah permanently if Brunetti would reduce his racing days from 50 to 40. "It was very clear to me he would have been far better off financially under that plan," says Donn. "Plus, it would have solved everything." Brunetti rejected the proposal.
In 1985 Gulfstream and Hialeah announced yet another agreement to alternate the middle dates, this time for two years. Then came last January's unanimous vote by the racing commission to award the middle dates to Gulfstream and the early—and worst—dates to Hialeah.
The personalities of the two protagonists in this drama are as integral to the story as the politics. Brunetti, 57, is charming, volatile, outspoken and sentimental. He has changed track management with alarming frequency (since he took over, there have been seven racing secretaries, seven publicity directors and six general managers) even as he has sung but one song: "Hialeah cannot survive without the middle dates." When the racing commission doesn't sing along, he threatens to fold the show forever.
Donn, 40, is a dynamic businessman, essentially a bottom-line guy. He has made Gulfstream the leading revenue-producing track in Florida. Under his leadership Gulfstream has consistently outproduced Hialeah in both the middle and the end dates. When Hialeah ran the middle dates in 1987, its handle was a track-record $101,577,793. Gulfstream, which ran the middle dates in '85 and '86, had handles of $114,940,056 and $114,995,640, respectively. Hialeah's handle for the end dates in '86 was $67,983,461, while Gulfstream's end-dates handle for '84 was $83,410,031.