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.

jack s More than 1 year ago
what a bizarre article.....Firstly, why on earth does writer Hovdey feel the need to give the gruesome details ("you could hear the horses kicking the stalls....")?? Secondly, why should politicians be so concerned about the thoroughbred industry? Yes, the industry creates a lot of jobs and tax revenue, but shouldn't the free market decide things? The people running the industry are SHOCKINGLY INCOMPETENT and UTTERLY USELESS. Look at NYRA. They received a massive windfall from slots. They put the money into upgrading the tracks and bolstering purses. These PINHEADS don't even realize that BETTING drives the industry. Not only did these CLOWNS not lower takeout one bit, they were caught stealing an extra 1% off the top. OOPS. Why should the government bailout these TOOLS?
Phillip Maxwell More than 1 year ago
Here's a sad tale. I am someone who has been both witness and actor in this pitiful story, I thank you for taking note of it. I grew up in the heyday of Michigan racing, when it rivaled Chicago. In the eighties, I represented a group of thoroughbred owners, including Bob Miller, Farid Sefa, J.V. Sanders, and O.H. Frisbie in the purchase of DRC, only to have Hartman & Tyner, then the owners of both Detroit tracks, renege on the deal at the last minute in favor of Ladroke. We sued and recovered a tidy sum, but the lasting effect was simply to locate thoroughbred racing exclusively at DRC. The hope of progress was effectively blocked by a combination of the machinations of Jimmy Karoub, Hartman & Tyner's lobbyist , Ladbroke's mismanagement of DRC and the obliviousness of the state. When DRC finally went down, Campell's decision to relocate to Muskegon finally doomed the Kings's sport here. Pinnacle was simply a postscript, an ill-advised scam. I again litigated to block the spread of Stronach's contagion here, but in the end the effort was rendered irrelevant by a statewide vote to ban slots at the racetracks. I did challenge the vote on behalf of the harness track,Northville Downs, and the quarter horse association, all the way to the Sixth Circuit, but, alas, all failed. Though I don't regret theeffort.
Sue Snyder More than 1 year ago
After the foreclosure of Pinnacle, I sure hope the fire wasn't a partial way out of the racing industry.
Denise Bennett More than 1 year ago
How dare you make such an assumption. The Campbell's love their horses and this industry enough to single handedly attempt to keep racing and breeding alive in the state of Michigan. Keep your dark thoughts to yourself unless you know these people personally.
Diana Knowles More than 1 year ago
Sue I think you hit the nail on the head. I agree....If more people knew the casino deals Campbell has been trying to grab onto with the former Sault Tribe leader & his Greek family; it makes more sense an insurance payoff to help build Lansing Casino. Amazing how one can get foreclosed on while at the same time claims to have enough money to build a casino considering he filed the Company Documents with the state of Michigan....Another Long Standing Race....What will burn next?
Douglas Bevington More than 1 year ago
I am writing this to say that I am a resident of Michigan and a race fan. This is the first I have heard of the barn fire at Grass Lake. I pray that it wasn't of untoward purposes for this fire. The racing industry in general in this state is on it's death bed even to say that if one Harness track stays open it will be a miracle. Thuroughbred racing was done when DRC closed and you can't expect that it will come back again at Pinnicle. In this case if you build it they won't come, it was inaccessable, fairgroundish, and unexciting. I hope that the fire was and accident and not a malicious after thought.
Denise Bennett More than 1 year ago
Seriously....this is your first thought ? This family is devastated right now. Yet, the only two comments were not of condolence, but of darkness. You obviously don't know Felicia and Jerry Campbell. They would NEVER harm an animal r allow one to be harmed. Even a first grader knows that if you have nothing nice to say...ESPECIALLY....in light of a tragic event....don't say anything at all.
Douglas Bevington More than 1 year ago
Obviously Denise you need to read the comment just a bit closer. There was no blame assigned to the burning down of the facility or to the names which you put foward in your comment. And I still stick to my comment that the game is dead here in Michigan and that Hovdey should have let out with the fire instead of the other drival he wrote. If you want me to say I'm sorry; I am for the horses. After all Mr. Hovdey did not even mention the prayer for the principals in his article it was for the 38 lost in the fire. Does that make him dark also? You might want to remind yourself about the other first grade addage " Sticks and Stones..."
Denise Bennett More than 1 year ago
By saying that you hoped the fire was an accident, put something out there that was not any more necessary than his comments and lack of empathy.