07/15/2008 11:00PM

Detroit again off to the races


HURON TOWNSHIP, Mich. - Horse power returns to the Motor City on Friday when America's newest Thoroughbred track, Pinnacle Race Course, brings racing back to the Detroit area after a 10-year hiatus.

It is understatement to say that Pinnacle is a work in progress. Ten months ago, the 320-acre site was an undeveloped swampy field adjacent to Detroit Metropolitan Airport, southwest of Detroit. In the days leading up to the opener, Caterpillar earthmovers and backhoes dominated the landscape. Huge tractor-trailers rumbled in and out of the unpaved main access road. Hard hats were the uniform of the day as construction workers laid blacktop, built fencing next to the outside rail, and put finishing touches on the paddock.

Inside the track's only permanent structure, the 500-seat Corporate Pavilion, a score of staff struggled to learn the food service computer, electricians hooked up giant flat-screen televisions, and ATM machines were being installed. The only other seating at the track is a 1,000-seat open-air temporary grandstand near the finish line.

Russ Gregory, Pinnacle's vice president for sales and marketing, said that despite the lack of current amenities, the main goal had been achieved.

"We're opening on July 18, and if you read it in that perspective, everyone is pleased," he said.

Indeed, considering the stormy history of Thoroughbred racing in the state over the last decade, it is amazing that the sport has survived to see the gates spring open on Friday's opening race - the $50,000 Lansing Stakes.

In early 1998, England-based Ladbroke Corp., frustrated by a lack of progress in bringing racinos to Michigan, announced that it would close the state's only Thoroughbred track, the suburban Detroit Race Course in Livonia, and sell the land for an industrial and commercial park.

Pinnacle's principal owner, banking magnate Jerry Campbell, a longtime horse owner and breeder, responded by converting his shuttered harness plant, Muskegon Raceway in the western part of the state, into a Thoroughbred bullring, Great Lakes Downs. Canada-based Magna Entertainment Corp. took over Great Lakes shortly thereafter and ran meetings there for the next nine years.

But after a few years it became apparent that western Michigan, lacking a large population base and any history of horse racing, would not support the sport. Magna began plans to build a new track near the current location of Pinnacle, but abandoned those plans in late 2007 and announced it was leaving the state.

Pinnacle officials stepped up and rushed to build a new plant. By the middle of this week, they were still rushing.

"We're trying to make it on this timeline and it's a challenge, to say the least," said Pinnacle's general manager, Allan Plever.

Fans can expect a fresh facility, but when it comes to jockeys and trainers, all that's old is new again. The rider colony includes perennial Detroit Race Course and Great Lakes riding leader Terry Houghton, Federico Mata, Ricky Knott, Luis Gonzalez, and Tommy Molina. Trainers include Michigan mainstays Gerald Bennett, Del Waite, Ronnie Allen, Charlie Williams, Richard Rettele, Larry Uellmen, and Reid Gross.

The one-mile dirt racing surface itself is getting positive reviews.

Exercise rider Jim Southern called the track "beautiful."

"The horses I've worked on it have taken ahold of it perfect," he said.

Clocker Dave Bryan saw 15 horses work over the surface on Tuesday and came away impressed. "The track seems great," he said. "When they go by, they're not slapping the ground. It's been kind to them."

Pinnacle's racing secretary, Denver Beckner, has announced a stakes schedule totaling just over $1.5 million highlighted by the six-race $720,000 Michigan Sires Stakes series on Oct. 18. Beckner said that purses would total about $75,000 per day with a bottom of $6,000 and a top of $15,000 per race.

Friday's featured Lansing Stakes for 3-year-old Michigan-bred colts and geldings over six furlongs will open the program. The Laura Jackson-trained Hot Chili, winner of 4 of 10 races and $158,000, is the likely favorite in the field of eight with Houghton riding. Chief competition will come from Berry's Pride, winner of one leg of last October's Michigan Futurity at Great Lakes and also trained by Jackson. Another contender is With Wings, trained by Scott Sowie. With Wings upset the 3-5 Hot Chili in the other leg of the Futurity last fall after a troubled trip by the favorite.

Pinnacle plans to continue improvements as this meeting and next year's unfold. On the table are a four-story clubhouse, a permanent grandstand, a seven-eighths-mile turf track and expansion of the barn area.

All of that is in a hazy future that may depend on how well the sport succeeds in the near term at its new venue. For now there will be inconveniences, but Thoroughbred horse power is back. For many Motor City racing fans, that is enough to rev their engines.