05/03/2007 11:00PM

Michigan racing on the brink

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The 75th anniversary season of Thoroughbred racing in Michigan may well be the last, as horsemen and industry leaders search for a way to keep the sport going in the face of grim economic realities.

Racing has not really been healthy in the Great Lakes State since record crowds jammed the Detroit Race Course in suburban Detroit in the mid-1970s. Since then, it has been a slow descent, and now the bottom appears in sight. DRC closed in 1998 and racing giant Magna Entertainment Corp. picked up the ball the next year with the initial meeting at Great Lakes Downs, a former harness racing facility about 40 miles from Grand Rapids. But MEC announced in January that in the face of $1.8 million in losses in 2006 this year would be its final meeting at Great Lakes Downs.

In March, MEC officials announced the company had shelved plans to build a track in Romulus, a western suburb of Detroit. No one has stepped forward with plans for a racing meeting in 2008, and if no one does so before the Aug. 31 deadline, racing for next year will be dead in the water.

"We're hoping," Great Lakes general manager Amy MacNeil said. "Michigan horsemen are very resilient people. They proved that when DRC closed and they got this place up and running. We're hoping that someone will step up to the plate and decide that they want to take this place over, but so far there's been nothing there."

There is a strong consensus that losing the 2008 season would make it very difficult to continue the sport in Michigan.

"We're toast if there is no 2008," said Mary Anne Barron, the veteran Michigan horsewoman who was named racing secretary at Great Lakes earlier this year. "It would be very hard. I can't even wrap my mind around that right now."

There is an equally strong consensus that the panacea would be ontrack video gaming, which has revitalized the racing industry in many jurisdictions.

"If we were allowed to have slot machines, that would do us a world of good," MacNeil said.

Fred Berry, president of the Michigan HBPA, said he has presented a plan for putting video lottery terminals in state racetracks to Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

"My plan would give the state almost 40 percent of the revenues generated from gaming at racetracks," Berry said. "Three percent would go to the city the track is located in and 2 percent would go to the county."

With the state facing a budget deficit of roughly $1 billion for this fiscal year, Michigan is exploring every potential revenue-generating idea. But the prospect of bringing racinos to Michigan faces such daunting hurdles that no serious effort has been undertaken.

The 2004 Michigan Proposal 1 makes the establishment of gaming at racetracks extremely problematic. The proposal requires approval referenda both statewide and in the municipality where there would be new gaming. The cost and logistics of collecting more than 300,000 signatures from registered voters to put such an issue on the statewide ballot has thus far discouraged any effort to do so.

In addition, the chances of a referendum succeeding, if it ever made the ballot, are dim. Proposal 1 passed by a 58 percent to 42 percent margin less than three years ago. Any effort to establish gaming at racetracks would be certain to face fierce opposition from deep-pocketed concerns such as the three Detroit casinos, Native American casinos, sectors of the religious community, and anti-gambling organizations such as Family Forum.

In view of this, horsemen and fans can do little but wait for the shoe to drop.

Michigan Racing Commissioner Christine White said that losing the Thoroughbred industry would be another blow to state finances.

"Thoroughbred racing started back in 1933, so it would be a huge loss to the equine industry within Michigan," she said. "Certainly it would mean the loss of many jobs and many dollars. There is also the property tax from the farms in Michigan, the income taxes, and the business taxes that the tracks have to pay. So it doesn't stop just with the tax on the handle."

There is still hope that a person or group will step forward with the finances to back a 2008 meeting.

"Our first priority is to find someone who is willing to apply for dates for next year," White said. "I have talked to people who have inquired about the process, although no one has come forward with a serious application."

Added HBPA president Berry: "We have to find someone to keep the dream going. We have to be around in 2008 if we are going to succeed in the future. If we shut down for one year, it's going to be devastating to the horse racing industry."

Meanwhile, MacNeil said spirits were high at Great Lakes, which opened Saturday, despite the uncertainty about next year.

As for the future of MacNeil herself: "I don't have a clue," she said. "If you hear of anything, let me know."

Sounds pretty much like the prospects for Thoroughbred racing in Michigan.