07/18/2008 11:00PM

By and large, Pinnacle opener a success

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HURON TOWNSHIP, Mich. – A party atmosphere prevailed as Michigan fans welcomed Thoroughbred racing back to the Detroit area on Friday when Pinnacle Race Course opened in this suburban township adjacent to Detroit Metropolitan Airport.

More than 3,000 fans – double the track’s current seating capacity – ignored the sweltering heat, the jet airliners roaring overhead and a passel of glitches to celebrate the first Thoroughbred card in Detroit since Ladbroke DRC closed for business in suburban Livonia in 1998.

The first race was delayed 30 minutes when the starting gate malfunctioned. Simulcast signals faded in and out and the Belmont simulcast was cancelled altogether an hour before the New York track’s first race. Fans lined the bars two and three deep. Cars formed a line more than a mile long on the main access road and untold numbers of fans were turned away by local police when parking lots reached capacity.

Still, an ambience of civility and courtesy prevailed as fans accepted the inconveniences for the chance to view live Thoroughbred racing for the first time in a decade.

Mike Warwick of nearby Brownstown Township and his wife Wendy both had the day off and were curious about the new track.

“It’s a lot more than I thought it would be,” said Warwick, 40, standing in the track’s only permanent facility, the corporate pavilion. “I was expecting a pole barn and a keg.”

Wendy Warwick said that she enjoyed the people-watching at the track.

“Everybody is so excited,” she said. “That’s what I like about it – the people.”

Not all fans were pleased with the new digs.

“They opened a hell of a lot too early,” said George Hardy, 65, of Dearborn Heights. “It won’t make it for more than a year in my opinion, which my wife tells me doesn’t mean a thing.”

Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano said that the track would give the county and the state a much-needed boost.

“This is just part of a plan to turn the airport into an economic engine,” he said. “This is a positive win for everybody. It’s jobs and that’s a key to the economy.”

State racing commissioner Christine White called the opening “quite unbelievable” in that the racing grounds were no more than 320 acres of swampy fields last September.

“Name another place in the country where they’ve put up a track like this in that amount of time,” she said.

Pinnacle majority owner Jerry Campbell called the overflow crowd “a good problem to have.” He said that the successes or glitches of opening day would not be critical in the long run.

“I think it will turn on the experience that people have,” he said. “We want to make this a model of horse racing today.”

Longshot players got their first – and only – good experience of the day when the 3 year-old gelding Equally Good won the inaugural race, the six-furlong $50,000 Lansing Stakes, by just over two lengths at odds of 17-1. Equally Good, under rider Ricardo Barrios, took over the race after two furlongs and was never headed, holding off the favored Hot Chili down the stretch.

And the party was under way. Whether that party will continue indefinitely or whether the clock will strike midnight after a season or two won’t be decided by a hot, humid and crowded opening day. But as beginnings go, Pinnacle Race Course made it out of the gate just fine.