05/13/2005 11:00PM

Eyes on Detroit as meet opens

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DETROIT - Don't expect much fanfare when tiny Great Lakes Downs begins the Michigan Thoroughbred season on Monday for the seventh time since the Detroit Race Course closed in 1998. The bell will ring on a 105-date meeting at the five-eighths-mile oval near Muskegon in southwest Michigan, but all eyes will remain firmly focused on the Office of the Racing Commissioner in suburban Detroit.

Acting racing commissioner Christine White said that before the end of the month she expects to announce which of the four parties bidding for a license for a Thoroughbred track in metro Detroit will be approved. Racing monolith Magna Entertainment Corp., which owns Great Lakes Downs, is the morning-line favorite.

"We need to get back to Detroit; there's no question about it," said Great Lakes racing secretary Allan Plever. "My gut feeling? I think Magna will get it. I think that the fact that they have persevered all these years with this track is the ultimate sacrifice to keep Michigan racing alive because, let's face it, if they don't come along, this thing is dead five years ago. They bit the bullet, they've hung in there this long, and I would be shocked if they didn't get the license."

Great Lakes Downs has been a losing proposition from Day 1. Southwest Michigan lacks both the population and racing tradition to sustain a Thoroughbred track.

"One of the problems here is that we don't have much live handle," Plever said. "Naturally if we get back to the Detroit area, there are still a lot of horseplayers there."

With handle, attendance, and state foal registrations down, White said that a track in the Detroit area is key to reviving the sport in Michigan.

"I think things are looking up," she said. "What everyone is pinning their hopes on is a new Thoroughbred track in metropolitan Detroit. I think the ruling on that will provide that hope and people will be feeling very positive about racing in Michigan."

Magna has purchased land for a track in Romulus, and last year won a nonbinding vote of approval from voters in that Detroit suburb to build there.

Meanwhile at Great Lakes Downs, general manager Amy MacNeil is making ready to start the show. She said she was trying to distance herself from the track license circus.

"I really can't tell how that would affect us," she said. "I think in the short run, we would continue to operate as usual. In the long run, I don't know. My efforts here are simply to put on a meet."

MacNeil said she was encouraged by the simulcast turnout for Kentucky Derby Day.

"We had about a thousand more people than our normal Derby Day," she said. "We took every inch of the building and packed it."

And Plever is busy writing races for the meeting, which begins three weeks later than normal. Great Lakes petitioned the racing commissioner's office for the later start.

"It's kind of a blessing," said Plever. "We were always late getting horses in from Tampa, Beulah, and Hawthorne. Now all three tracks are closed."

The delay will also help the statebreds who have been laid off since last fall get into shape, and Plever said he expects to have nearly a thousand head on hand at the start of the meet.

"It's enough to ensure fuller fields than we've had in the past," he said. "And the local horses are going to be a lot fitter than they have been in past years."

The cast and crew will remain much the same, Plever said, with riding favorites Terry Houghton, Mary Dozier, and Federico Mata joining longtime trainers like Gerald Bennett, James Jackson, and Randy Russell.

But the meeting will be a mere sideshow, and Great Lakes Downs is destined to be just a prominent footnote in the history of Michigan racing. All parties agree that it's Detroit or bust.

Said White: "From everything I've heard from horsemen across the state - and I've heard from many - they are looking forward to a new track in metropolitan Detroit, and that will stabilize the situation in the state if not outright grow it."