"It's taken us some time to accept it," John Brunetti Jr. said earlier this week, "but it looks like the final nail has been driven in our coffin."

It is hard for racing fans to accept too that the world's most beautiful track is in such perilous condition. But Hialeah Park shut down last winter after an abortive, disastrous race meeting, and its management announced Tuesday that there would be no racing in the winter of 1990-91.

Hialeah will never again operate with the Brunetti family running it. The nail has, indeed, been driven into the owners' coffin. Its competitors have proposed a plan that would permit Hialeah to survive under new management, but the egos and the economics involved in Florida racing probably make this a long-shot proposition.

The problems that have plagued Hialeah for years are, by now, well-known. Changing demographics in south Florida have left the grand old track -- with its magnificent architecture, its statues and fountains, its bougainvillea, its famous flamingos -- in the midst of an inelegant neighborhood well removed from the affluent communities where tourists flock. The other two tracks in greater Miami, Gulfstream Park and Calder, have much better locations.

Hialeah's owner, John Brunetti Sr., recognized that the best chance to maintain his track's position of preeminence was to operate during the prime midwinter dates, at the height of the tourist season, and he fought for these dates in the legislature, the courts and with the racing commission. A product of the rough-and-tumble New Jersey construction industry, Brunetti fought so fiercely he incurred the enmity of just about everybody in the Florida racing industry.

The constant bickering over racing dates so exasperated the legislators in Tallahassee that they finally took the unprecedented step of "deregulating" the industry -- letting each track operate whenever it wanted. The idea behind deregulation was that it would force Hialeah, Gulfstream and Calder to work out a mutually acceptable racing schedule. But it did no such thing. The track owners couldn't agree (everybody is still blaming everybody else for the discord) and last November Hialeah opened in head-to-head competition with Calder.

This was Brunetti's fatal miscalculation. Hialeah drew such pitiful crowds that it proved how weak its position was. It couldn't survive any type of competition, and Brunetti was forced to shut down after only a few weeks. So when the time came for negotiations over the 1990-91 dates, Hialeah had no strength from which to bargain. The representatives of Bert Firestone, who owns both Gulfstream and Calder, didn't have to yield any dates to Hialeah.

Of course, the discussions over racing dates were accompanied by all of the name-calling and finger-pointing that has become characteristic of the Florida racing industry. Wilbur Brewton, Firestone's attorney, said: "If Hialeah had come to the table with a reasonable offer {to operate} under 50 racing dates, we were prepared to negotiate. My impression was that Hialeah did not want to do anything but cancel its season."

Brunetti Jr., Hialeah's vice president, said, "Our competitors and the Florida legislature do not have the desire to allow Hialeah to operate as it has in previous years."

After these non-negotiations had resulted in another non-season for Hialeah, Firestone issued a proposal that would allow the historic track's continued existence.

Firestone proposed to sponsor a nonprofit organization that would conduct an annual meeting at Hialeah -- a short, high-quality season akin to Saratoga's. Brewton said: "With the track's severe demographic problems, the only way to do this is in a nonprofit setting. I am at a loss for any other solution."

Firestone would be willing to sacrifice the profits that Gulfstream could be earning when Hialeah is operating. But, his attorney said, he couldn't be expected to sacrifice those profits so that John Brunetti could make a profit.

Brunetti Jr. said this proposal "was never discussed" during the talks about racing dates, but he took a dim view of the idea: "They're saying that Mr. Firestone would be willing to take the track and tell us, 'Get lost.' "

Brewton said: "I would envision that a reasonable purchase price for the track itself would be negotiated." Of course, the failure of these same parties to resolve any of their differences through negotiation does not make this a rosy prospect.

Firestone could make a low offer for the Hialeah property just to put the onus for the track's demise on Brunetti. Indeed, Brewton now says the whole Hialeah question boils down to this: "Does Mr. Brunetti want to save Hialeah as a racing institution?"

Brunetti might find it more profitable to develop the Hialeah property than to sell out to Firestone. Moreover, he is so fiercely competitive it is hard to imagine him surrendering to Firestone. But after he has fought so hard and so long to save Hialeah, Brunetti must realize that the only way to do so is to turn the track over to the man who put him out of business.