Florida Trend | Florida's Business Authority

Reimagining Racetracks

The nearly century-old Hialeah Park thoroughbred racetrack has hosted luminaries Harry Truman, Winston Churchill, Jackie Kennedy and Elizabeth Taylor — along with the iconic flock of American flamingos seen in the opening credits of Miami Vice in the 1980s.

In a few months, the historic site will host something new: Renters.

Developer Prestige Cos. in 2024 will open 341 rental units at its “Flamingo Village” complex. A charter school will follow. Longterm plans anticipate filling the track oval, parking lots and stable areas with entertainment, dining and other uses in demand from South Florida’s growing population. At 201 acres, Hialeah Park is a lightly developed island in a heavily developed metro.

“We are very fortunate to be in the location we are,” says John Brunetti Jr., Hialeah Park’s president. “It’s in the center of a very densely populated county. It makes it a prime area for redevelopment. We recognize it’s something that’s unique, one-of-a-kind, and can’t be replicated.”

Florida for decades was one of the few hubs of the nation’s horses, hounds and jai alai parimutuel industries. Track openings drew celebs of yesteryear such as Amelia Earhart. Counties across the state still have streets with names like “Race Track Road” and “Dog Track Road” that once carried thousands out to the boondocks to wager.

Changing consumer tastes through the years cut those flows to a trickle. The profits and patronage came to be in slot machines, where allowed by Florida law, and cardrooms. Then in 2018, voters approved a state constitutional amendment phasing out commercial greyhound racing by 2020. Track owners, for the most part, weren’t sorry to see the dogs go.

“Greyhound racing had long since seen its day in Northeast Florida and most of the state,” says Jamie Shelton of bestbet, a wagering company in Northeast Florida. The state for years had made operating parimutuel events, meek money-makers that they were, a condition to getting permits for profitable slots and cards. The voter-mandated cessation of greyhound racing left casinos and cardrooms free to leave live racing events behind.

That cessation and the dropping of other live parimutuel activity — Hialeah Park’s thoroughbreds went out in 2001 and quarter horse racing years later — have opened acres of kennels, stables and tracks for redevelopment up and down the state. “Over the next five to 10 years, you’re going to see a lot of the owners engage in redevelopment of their properties,” says Tallahassee attorney John Lockwood, who represents several parimutuel facilities and investors around Florida. “Most of them are sitting on prime real estate ripe for development.”

The trend has historic precedent. A dog track dating to the 1920s once was a South Beach landmark on Miami Beach. It met its demise in 1980. Today the area — about as expensive real estate as there is in South Florida — houses soaring luxury condo buildings.

Tracks generally were built on the outskirts — at the time — of towns. Florida’s rapid development surged around and past the sites, leaving them as in-fill opportunities.

The Pompano Beach harness racing track in Broward opened in 1964 amid farmland, says Pat Rowley of the Pompano Historical Society. The track pre-dated Interstate 95, which today is just to the track’s east. Development has long since swept westward making the track’s 223 acres, once on the western fringe, now a top-tier site in the densely populated east. The wider Pompano area is experiencing a shift as dated condos and motels give way to high-rise luxury living. Miami-based Related Group and Fort Lauderdale-based Merrimac Ventures are collaborating on a 92-unit oceanfront Waldorf Astoria condo tower there, while Fortune International is building a Ritz-Carlton Residences nearby.

Row upon row of empty horse barns in the environs of the old harness track speak of a once-thriving race center thriving no more. A few hundred yards from the abandoned barns, however, construction workers make progress on the multistory bays of a new driving range-entertainment facility. A new parking deck connects to a Harrah’s casino, its 1,500-slot floor dotted with the middle-aged and elderly, the card tables drawing a younger generation. The racing action, what’s left of it, is upstairs — on the small screens where wagerers bet on simulcast races from other states. Outside on the deck, a few enjoy a cigar, with a view of a track no longer in use, mounds of aggregate here and there.

Baltimore-based The Cordish Cos., working with property owner Caesars Entertainment, plans a 1.3 million-sq.-ft. recreation district for the site with dining around a central plaza that will host entertainment and events and retail along with two hotels, 4,000 luxury apartments and 1.35 million square feet of Class A offices.

“The Pomp represents one of the most dynamic opportunities for placemaking in the United States,” said Cordish principal Blake Cordish in announcing the project.

Hialeah, like Pompano, also is experiencing a shift. Long known for its industrial base and blue-collar populace, it’s seeing its own boom as real estate prices elsewhere in Miami- Dade make Hialeah look attractive. Developers Related Group of Florida and Fontainebleau Development purchased the 28-acre site of an old greyhound track and built a 642-unit luxury apartment project called Manor Hialeah with rents ranging from $2,260 to $4,300.

Five miles away at the Hialeah Park horse track, Brunetti is waiting to see how leasing goes at Prestige’s apartments, which take up 12 acres of the 201-acre property, as his family ponders what to build on the rest of the track site. Opened in 1925 for horse racing by aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss, it’s on the National Register of Historic Places and an Audubon bird sanctuary. Its grandstand was designed by Lester Geisler from European influences. Horses that raced there included Seabiscuit, Citation and Seattle Slew.

The Brunetti family bought Hialeah Park in the 1970s. Brunetti says the family is proud of the National Register designation and there’s no plan to demolish the grandstand or clubhouse. Indeed, he says, the family made an “extensive” investment in upgrading the clubhouse as a banquet hall and for simulcasting and in upgrading the grandstand as a casino, which opened in 2013, with 800 slots and 30 poker tables. Hialeah Park, according to the Florida Gaming Control Commission, saw $1.47 billion wagered in its 800 slots in 2022-23 and net slot revenue of $101.6 million. “We’re very satisfied with the current state of our business,” Brunetti says. “Right now, I would describe ourselves as right-sized, if you will.”

The redevelopment of track sites fits a trend toward the repurposing of desirable locations throughout Florida, says Anthony Kang of the law firm Saul Ewing, though he adds that redevelopment in general has been slowed by higher interest rates. “It definitely makes it harder to get deals done,” Kang says.

Local governments generally welcome redevelopment because it increases the tax base and adds to an area’s amenities. Cardrooms and casinos also serve as solid anchors drawing patrons to other tenants of redeveloped sites.

To date, however, few parimutuels have sold their sites. An exception: Sarasota area real estate investor Eric Baird in May announced he paid $9.5 million for the 26- acre Sarasota Kennel Club greyhound racing track and plans to redevelop it.

Meanwhile, some owners, while asset rich in land, lack the resources to redevelop on their own but don’t want to part with prime property. Few have brought in redevelopment partners as Caesars did with Cordish in Pompano. Many say they are content with existing operations. “It’s business as usual here at Derby Lane,” says Derby Lane spokesperson Alexis Winning. Derby Lane, formerly a dog track, is in Pinellas County on Gandy Boulevard just across the bridge from Tampa.

The Rooney family, which owns the 48-acre Palm Beach Kennel Club track site across from Palm Beach International Airport, for now has turned its former racing area — the track and tote board are still there — into “Camp Rusty Dog Retreat,” a dog daycare and boarding facility. “The focus is to continue to grow our existing business,” says publicity director Theresa Hume. It has renovated restaurant and poker rooms. It also has off-track betting on horses, hounds and jai alai from other venues, dining, hosts parties and live shows, comedians and special events built around holiday buffets, the Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup. “PBKC is always open and willing to listen to any new ideas to grow our business and remain relevant,” Hume says.

Bestbet’s Shelton says he gets calls “about once a week” from parties interested in bestbet’s sites in Jacksonville, Orange Park and St. Augustine. After the amendment, bestbet sold the former site of the St. Johns Greyhound Park for $16.5 million to Jacksonville-based Gatlin Development, which wanted it for a mixed-use project. Bestbet in turn used the land sales proceeds for the purchase and construction of its new 40,673-sq.-ft. bestbet St. Augustine. Shelton says plans call for taking down the Orange Park dog track and grandstand clubhouse in a few years and building on the 15-acre site a single-story cardroom surrounded with dining, shopping and entertainment. Shelton says the company will work closely with the town and county to get “buy in” from all parties “as it will be front and center, gateway to the city.”

At Hialeah Park, Brunetti says the market will dictate the timing and type of future redevelopment. “You have to do it right. Fortunately, we’re in a position where we don’t have to rush,” he says. “Our focus is really more to diversify and add some non-gaming amenities so we have more to offer than just a casino.”

He is certain that any repurposing will accommodate the flock of flamingos. “Hialeah Park without flamingos would not be the same,” Brunetti says.