05/02/2007 11:00PM

If this is it, it's ending with a bang


They'll be living in the present this year at Great Lakes Downs because the past has been gloomy and the future may not exist. The bullring near Muskegon, Mich., enters its ninth and perhaps final season as the home of Thoroughbred racing in Michigan on Saturday.

Track general manager Amy MacNeil remains upbeat even after Magna Entertainment Corp. pulled the plug in January, announcing that it would not seek racing dates for Great Lakes Downs in 2008 after the 2006 meeting lost $1.8 million.

"Our goal this year is to continue moving forward like any other year," MacNeil said. "Whatever handle comes in now will affect purses next year, if there is a next year. And my staff and I feel that we owe it to the horsemen to continue on and make it the best meet possible."

The 100-day season starts on Saturday and runs through Nov. 6. Racing is scheduled for Saturdays, Mondays, and Tuesdays through May with Wednesdays being added to the schedule starting in June. First post will be at 5:10 p.m. every day except Saturdays when it will be 6:30 p.m.

First-year racing secretary Mary Anne Barron said she expects full fields.

"We're going to try as best we can to put on a good show this year," she said. "All my stalls are allocated. I have a waiting list."

There will be plenty of familiar names among the trainers at Great Lakes - Gerald Bennett, Randy Russell, Douglas R. Barron, Larry Uelmen, and Richard Retelle are among those returning.

"They're all big outfits and they come in here and run hard," Barron said.

Three equally familiar names, perennial leading jockey T.D. Houghton and top 20 riders Jose Delgado and Joseph Judice will not be in attendance. All three have been banned from track premises due to an investigation by the Throughbred Racing protective bureau. Great Lakes officials have not given a specific reason for the ban and no inquiry or official action has been taken against the riders.

"At this time they are not allowed," Barron said. "This is private property."

Meanwhile, preparations continue for what promises to be a bang-up opening day.

"Derby Day is going to be huge," MacNeil said. "It's our opener, the Derby itself is huge, and immediately after the races we're going to simulcast the Floyd Mayweather-Oscar De La Hoya [junior middleweight] championship boxing match. I'm sure we're going to get a big response."

MacNeil said there would be live entertainment most Saturday nights and singles dances every Friday night. On June 16, the track will hold its "Race to the Altar." The event, sponsored by a local radio station, will have prospective grooms in tuxedos race out of the starting gate carrying prospective brides in gowns. The winner of the foot race gets a free wedding at Great Lakes Downs.

More serious racing enthusiasts look forward to Oct. 6 when the Michigan Sires Stakes will be held. Each of the six races for statebreds has an estimated purse of $120,000. And on Oct. 29 and 30 the Michigan Futurity for fillies and colts, respectively, will be held with purses of $50,000 each.

By that time the future of the track may be known. The deadline for applying for 2008 racing dates in Aug. 31 and Barron said she is hoping that someone steps to the plate to keep racing alive in Michigan.

"My hopes are that we will have a 2008 season," she said. "I don't really have any predictions. Everybody's just sitting here on pins and needles."

That would seem to be the consensus thinking at Great Lakes Downs these days.

"Bottom line is, we all love our jobs," MacNeil said. "We love the industry and we want to keep going."