02/22/2012 3:37PM

Hovdey: Tragedy adds to tough times in Michigan

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With a key presidential primary just around the corner, the media’s current obsession with all things Michigan is monopolizing the conversation as candidates burrow deep into both the upper and lower peninsulas.

Mitt Romney, a native son, waxes rhapsodic about the cars his dad used to make at American Motors (got to love that little Nash Rambler) and swoons over the height of Michigan’s trees. Rick Santorum flaunts his blue-collar cred in a state that once led the union movement, while Ron Paul angles to improve on his 6 percent of the vote in the 2008 primary, and Newt Gingrich criss-crosses the state proclaiming, “We are all Wolverines now!”

Into this decidedly masculine Michigan mix, Sports Illustrated dropped its swimsuit edition, fronted by cover girl and native Michigander Kate Upton. It is best to let those more qualified in the area of aquatic fashion handle a critical analysis of the issue, which I believe is subtitled “That’s All Folks.” Rather, it should be noted that Upton, who was raised in the more bikini friendly Florida, is a lifelong lover of all things horses.

This from Gina Salamone of the New York Daily News, quoting equestrian instructor Sharon Gillespie, who coached Upton as a young teenager when she won three American Paint Horse Reserve World Championships aboard a horse named Roanie Pony:

“She was really skilled in a lot of different events, which is unusual because most people are only good at a few things,” Gillespie said. “She did jumping, reining, she probably showed in 10 or 12 different events. Everybody in the horse industry knew her, even before she started modeling.”

It should be noted that the last woman from western Michigan with a horsey background to make the cover of Sports Illustrated was Julie Krone, in 1989, which was three years before Upton even hit the ground. As Ms. Krone’s husband, I carry a copy of the magazine wherever I go for discounts at racetrack gift shops, although I don’t think the same trick will work if I flash the current SI cover. Even in Michigan.

Horses and Michigan used to be commonly synonymous in the Thoroughbred racing world. Seabiscuit ran at the Detroit Fair Grounds, which was replaced in 1950 by Detroit Race Course, in suburban Livonia, and offered the Michigan Mile and One-Eighth, which began life as the catchier Michigan Mile but as a nine-furlong event attracted an impressive slate of the nation’s top older runners.

Black Tie Affair won the race on his way to becoming 1991 Horse of the Year. In a 1968 showdown of future champions, Nodouble defeated Damascus. The champion mares Glorious Song, Old Hat, and My Juliet all beat colts at DRC. Nearctic, sire of Northern Dancer, won the Michigan event as did King’s Bishop, Sensitive Prince, and Lost Code.

Detroit Race Course was purchased by the Ladbrokes international bookmaking company in 1985 and was sold in 1998, bulldozed, and developed into a commercial center. In 1999, the old Muskegon harness track was resurrected as Great Lakes Downs for Thoroughbreds and the following year was purchased by Magna Entertainment.

Great Lakes was shuttered in 2007, but there arose Pinnacle Race Course, south of Detroit, to take up the vacated dates in 2008. The lifeline was only temporary, however. Pinnacle, besieged by the economic downturn and competition from the region’s casino industry, did not race in 2011.

With its stubborn standardbred industry still a steady presence, Michigan is technically counted among the states considered in the parimutuel horse racing category. Without much in the way of Thoroughbred dates, though, Michigan horse folks find little solace in their rich history.

This year, there are about 250 Thoroughbred races planned for the mixed-breed meet at Mount Pleasant Meadows, hardly a wellspring of opportunities. There are hopes that Pinnacle can muster the economic backing to stage a significant meet this fall, but that remains to be seen.

In the face of the turmoil and disappointment over the loss of a reliable racing calendar, the Michigan Thoroughbred family was sent reeling from a tragedy that puts everything else aside. On Tuesday night in Grass Lake, a township just to west of Ann Arbor, a barn fire at a Thoroughbred farm killed 38 horses. The farm is owned by Jerry and Lisa Campbell, Michigan industry leaders and the people behind the Pinnacle Race Course.

“Everyone’s in shock,” said Lee Schostak of the Michigan Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association. “We’re all just trying to deal with this terrible tragedy.”

The blaze erupted Tuesday evening about 10 o’clock and, according to eyewitnesses, quickly engulfed the two-story Campbell Stables barn. A neighbor, Rob Dunkley, described the scene for local reporter Aaron Aupperlee.

“The roof was glowing red,” Dunkley said, ”and you could see the flames were just starting to break through the end parts of the barn. It burned fast. It went so fast, it was horrible.”

Among those horses trapped inside were the stallions Valid Trefaire, by Valid Appeal, War Image, by Halo’s Image, and Fire Blitz, by Storm Cat. A farm employee was hospitalized with burns.

“You could hear the horses kicking the stalls and being very loud,” Dunkley added.

Chances are, the fate of the Michigan Thoroughbred industry will not be of much concern this week to Mitt, Rick, Ron, or Newt. Important issues regarding agriculture have been crowded out by other campaign concerns. But Grass Lake is not exactly in the boondocks, and if any single one of the candidates has anything resembling a heart, they might want to swing by the Campbell farm and bow a head in tribute to those lost 38.