06/25/2014 10:13AM

Hazel Park reopens as Thoroughbred venue Friday

Jim McCue/Maryland Jockey Club
Hall of Famer Jack Van Berg, once a regular trainer at Hazel Park, will appear Friday to sign copies of his biography “Jack: From Grit to Glory,” written by Chris Kotulak.

The opening of the 2014 Thoroughbred meet at Hazel Park Raceway on Friday will be a homecoming for Michigan’s horsemen on many levels.

For the younger generation, it will mark a return to the greater Detroit area after the short-lived Pinnacle Race Course closed its doors in 2010. For the older generation, it signifies a return to the track itself, which hosted Thoroughbred racing from 1949 to 1984 before becoming a Standardbred-only venue.

Friday’s card will kick off a 32-day meet for Thoroughbreds, Quarter Horses, and Arabians at Hazel Park, running Fridays and Saturdays from June 27 through Oct. 11. Post time each day will be 7:30 p.m. Eastern.

Hazel Park’s days as a Standardbred facility became numbered in December when the state’s Thoroughbred horsemen agreed to move their meet to the track, located in the northern suburbs of Detroit. After nearly three decades of strictly harness racing, the conversion was a fairly quick one.

Hazel Park held its final day of harness racing May 3, and crews came in to cover the limestone surface with a sandy loam shortly thereafter. The 300-stall barn area also underwent significant reconstruction to accommodate the new residents, with plans for later expansion.

Horsemen began training over the five-furlong oval June 18, nine days prior to opening day.

“We’re bringing it all together in a very short amount of time,” said racing secretary Mary Anne Barron. “Things are coming together very well at this time. Horses were able to get on the track this past week on this new surface. The reviews that we’ve gotten from the exercise personnel and jockeys is that they really, really like the surface. We’ve breezed horses over it, and everybody is well satisfied with the surface.”

The highlight of the quasi-inaugural meet will be Michigan Sire Stakes Day on Sept. 27, featuring six stakes races for Michigan-sired runners, each for an estimated purse of $50,000. The stakes schedule will otherwise be modest, largely consisting of restricted Michigan-bred events for purses of $20,000 to $30,000. However, it will be the first time the state has had a regular stakes program since 2010.

Among the jockeys riding the opening-day card are Michigan regulars Ricardo Barrios, Angel Stanley, Octavio Bernal, and Jeffrey Skerrett. Riders coming in from other locales include Ontario-based Brittany Vanden Berg, Ruben Rojas from Indiana Grand, and Luis Quinones from Mountaineer, as well as Alvaro Hernandez-Lopez and Luis Martinez Jr. from ThistleDown.

The roster of trainers expected to have a regular presence at Hazel Park includes many of the state’s familiar names, including Robert Gorham, Shane Spiess, James Jackson, and Richard Rettele. Barron said she has received inquiries from trainers at Indiana interested in entering the track’s four-furlong sprints as well.

Hazel Park is familiar territory for Rettele, who first worked at the track in 1958 under Hall of Fame trainer Marion Van Berg. Rettele said he plans to send about 15 horses to the track right away, with more to come, including Quarter Horses. He is one of many who will bring horses to Hazel Park already in race shape from Indiana, ThistleDown, and elsewhere.

“It’ll all come back together,” Rettele said about the track’s development. “It might take a week or so, but it’s all going to shape up. A lot of the same people are back on the scene that were there when they were running Thoroughbreds [at Hazel Park], and they’re all knowledgeable with that, so I think it’s all going to come together real good.”

The ties between Hazel Park and the Van Berg family continue into the new meet with fellow Hall of Famer Jack Van Berg, once a regular trainer at the track, who will appear Friday to sign copies of his biography “Jack: From Grit to Glory,” written by Chris Kotulak.