09/20/2013 2:46PM

Michigan Sire Stakes reunite a scattered industry

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Uncertainty is nothing new in Michigan, a state whose reputation has decayed from a pillar of Midwestern prosperity into a cautionary tale.

While the most widely recognized scenes of Michigan’s decline have come from Detroit’s ailing manufacturing industry, the state’s horse racing industry has been in the midst of its own tailspin. Over the past 15 years, the state’s Thoroughbred platoon has endured a nomadic crisscrossing of the state in search of a permanent home and has instead found diminishing returns.

Once a key cog on the racing landscape, Michigan’s horsemen were left to fend for themselves by state leadership that put its lot in state-sponsored and tribal casinos, which number 26 and counting across the state. The horsemen responded by fleeing in droves to one of the many surrounding states that offer lucrative slots-infused purses, and the state’s foal crop plummeted as a result.

Through unsteady times, one of the lone remaining beacons is the Michigan Sire Stakes, a six-race series divided by age and sex for state-sired horses. This year’s edition will be held Sunday at Mount Pleasant Meadows, featuring purses of $50,000. Mount Pleasant is the program’s fourth venue in the past 15 years.

“We’ve been at several different facilities, but the importance and the excitement over the Sire Stakes has not diminished,” said Gary Tinkle, executive director of the Michigan Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association. “It’s still an important part of our racing season and important to our horsemen – one of the little bright spots that we have available for the year.”

Fifteen years ago, Detroit Race Course hosted its final edition of the Sire Stakes, which took over as the state’s marquee card after the track dropped its graded Michigan Mile and One-Eighth Handicap. By the end of 1998, the track was leveled and the property was developed.

Next came Great Lakes Downs on the shores of Lake Michigan, which was closed following the 2007 season and sold to the Little River Band of Chippewa Indians, who razed the plant on its continuing quest to build another casino. Racing then briefly moved back to southern Detroit with the opening of Pinnacle Race Course in 2008. The track collapsed under a mountain of debt following three seasons of racing.

Today, Michigan’s Thoroughbred platoon is in the midst of its third season at Mount Pleasant Meadows, a four-furlong oval on the Isabella County Fairgrounds that makes up in charm what it lacks in live handle. Based at one of the last major outposts before hitting the rural “up north” area of Michigan, the mixed-breed track will host its second edition of the Sire Stakes on Sunday.

While the remainder of Michigan’s stakes program has vanished as purse funds dwindled, the Sire Stakes survives because the races are written into state law, funded by a percentage of all-sources simulcast revenues through the Michigan’s Ag Equine Development Fund.

Michigan has four venues from which to draw simulcast revenues: harness tracks Hazel Park Raceway, Northville Downs, and Sports Creek Raceway; as well as Mount Pleasant Meadows, which will run 44 dates this year.

At their highest point in 2001, the Sire Stakes purses reached $158,000 per race, but as the state’s troubles increased and simulcast income fell, the purses have settled at $50,000.

“Because the purse pool has depleted so much, and even the breeders’ fund has depleted, we’re trying to hold onto some continuity for the Michigan program,” said Lisa Campbell, a director of Michigan’s Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association. “We only get X amount of dollars from the Ag Equine Fund, so with that, we have to supplement all the Michigan-bred races all year, and we’ve been trying to keep at least one stakes going, which for the breeders would be the Sire Stakes, so we’re not only supporting Michigan-breds, but Michigan stallions.”

Campbell is one of an ever-growing list of Michiganders who breed and stand stallions in the state but primarily stable elsewhere to compete for more lucrative purses in Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia – all racino states.

Many of those horsemen race at Mount Pleasant to varying degrees, mostly with second-string stock, and will bring horses making their first 2013 starts on Michigan soil this Sunday. That group includes trainers Ronald Allen Sr., Robert Gorham, Gerald Bennett, James Jackson, Denis Cluley, Richard Rettele, and Shane Spiess.

Campbell owns, bred, or stood the sires of six horses entered in this year’s Sire Stakes races. Two will run in the older fillies and mares division – morning-line favorite Charlies Fire and Evil Secret, who will attempt to replicate her 11 3/4-length win in last year’s edition.

“It’s a different track up there,” Campbell said, comparing Mount Pleasant’s racing surface to Thistledown, where the bulk of her horses are stabled. Thistledown “is really hard this year, and you’re going up there in a deep surface, it’s a big difference. How tired they’re going to get, I don’t know.”

Five of last year’s six Sire Stakes winners will return for this year’s series. The older males division features a matchup between defending winner Power of Titus and Moving Style, winner of last year’s 3-year-old male stakes. Art I Awesome, winner of last year’s juvenile male division, will attempt to once again best his crop as a 3-year-old, while Prayer Salute, upset winner of the 2012 sophomore fillies division, will compete in the older females class.