John Brunetti, the controversial and determined owner of historic Hialeah Park in South Florida, has died. He was 87.
A prominent horseracing industry figure, Brunetti hoped to restore the track to its former grandeur but was often battling with rival track owners, state and local politicians, and never succeeded in his repeated efforts to restore the famous track back to prominence.
Rick Sacco, who currently runs the Brunetti family’s breeding and racing operations in Ocala, told the Miami Herald that Brunetti had remained in contact with top officials for Gulfstream Park, hoping to work out a way to squeeze Hialeah back into the South Florida thoroughbred calendar without success.
Hialeah had been a showplace for celebrities, world and national leaders, and most of all, many of the greatest horses to ever race. A statue of Citation, one of the greatest horses of all time, can still be seen at the track, famous worldwide for its Mediterranean architecture, pink flamingos and rich history.
Brunetti, well known for his philanthropy in the region, bought Hialeah in 1977, however, after the state stopped assigning dates in 1989, enabling the tracks to operate whenever they wished, population and gambling dollars shifted to other parts of South Florida and the track could no longer compete. The track is now home to a casino and conducts a controversial Quarter Horse meeting to minimally comply, according to industry observers, with state casino operational requirements.
Cheeky Miss won the last Hialeah thoroughbred race on May 22, 2001.
Brunetti battled medical issues in recent years. He had triple bypass surgery in 1996, a kidney transplant in 2013, and last year had a cancerous lung removed.
“I’m rounding third base and headed for home,” Brunetti said in a article for the Miami Herald late last year.