Workers in hardhats are drilling holes and installing wires, supervisors are poring over blueprints, and an abandoned grandstand will soon become a casino at Hialeah Park.
The historic horse track is set to open its casino this summer, with about 870 slot machines, 20 poker tables, three dominoes tables, three restaurants and two bars. The casino is the first step in a three-phase renovation plan that eventually may include a hotel, shops and offices at the park, which opened in 1925.
General Manager Steve Calabro said he expects the slots to start spinning in June or July. When they do, he said, it'll be a day skeptics didn't think would happen.
"We've been working on this a long time," Calabro said.
Hialeah Park got a late start in the South Florida casino game. Saying there was too much competition, owner John Brunetti closed the track in 2001 and thought about converting the property to condominiums. Instead, he kept the track closed, and it deteriorated.
He began making plans to revive Hialeah Park after Miami-Dade County voters in 2008 approved slots for the three pari-mutuels that were in operation at the time. Brunetti won state legislative approval for slots at Hialeah in 2010, and the state Supreme Court dismissed arguments by its rivals that Hialeah wasn't part of the deal voters thought they were getting. Some estimates suggest Hialeah could pull $2 million a month in slot business from nearby Magic City Casino and Casino Miami Jai-Alai.
With patrons sitting in rickety lounge chairs, and much of the property needing a fresh coat of paint, Hialeah has been hosting quarter-horse races since November 2009. The current racing season will end on Feb. 17.
At its September 2011 casino groundbreaking, Brunetti planned to construct a new facility for slots and poker. But in March 2012, Brunetti, who has lined up about $100 million for the project, said refurbishing the north part of the grandstand, with 380 fewer slots, would bring in revenue quicker.
Now the electrical wiring is in place, with security cameras and drywall next. The first floor of the casino will contain slots, with the poker room on the second floor.
When construction is completed, visitors will enter Hialeah Park via the north (East 32nd Street) entrance, instead of the east (East Fourth Avenue) gate that's now open.
Daytime food will include the Havana Café, an indoor spot for gamblers, part of which will convert into the more-formal Junior's Bistro in the evening.
Calabro, the former general manager at Gulfstream Park Racing and Casino, said slot patrons can sign up at the casino's website for the player's club beginning April 1, and those who do "will get a little extra bonus." He said the casino will distinguish itself from competitors through higher slot payouts and better customer service.
To many people, Calabro said, Hialeah represents tradition, with its statue of 1948 Triple Crown winner Citation and its iconic flock of pink flamingos.
"We think the grandeur of the name will certainly help us," he said.