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Michigan Sire Stakes reunite a scattered industry
By Joe Nevills
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.
It personally sickens me to see what racing has become in Michigan. I was at the DRC almost everyday. I watched that track decay under the ownership of Tyner and Hartman. The grandstand and the open portion of the clubhouse...which was a great place to watch racing...became over-sized pigeon coops. A friend of mine used to pitch his cigarette butts in the same corner of the grandstand. It became an ominous pile until the day before Michigan Mile day. (Anyone that has been to a major racetrack like Arlington or Churchill will note that these facilities are as clean as can be.) Then Ladbroke bought it and tried to turn it around. They even shelled out extra money for the purses to attract higher classes of horses from other states; this was in hopes of drawing horsemen to Michigan on a permanent basis. However, you don't draw in these outfits unless the economic outlook of the region for the foreseeable future holds promise. The economic outlook wasn't promising. The tracks started to lose money as soon as Michigan instituted a State Lottery back in the 70's. Coleman Young (Mayor of Detroit from the 70's to the 90's) wanted to build casinos in Detroit. He could not get the State to go along with it. The argument was that they were evil and would cause crime...yada yada yada... Then Windsor built one. As the State watched $$ go across the Detroit River into Canada, it finally dawned on them that Detroit should have casinos. It was bad enough that the tracks had to contend with a casino in Windsor; now they had to contend with casinos in Detroit. Thoroughbred racing then relocated to a 5/8ths oval in Muskegon. It previously was a harness track named Muskegon Race Course but was changed to Great Lakes Downs. I had the pleasure of visiting it one night. It was clean and the racing was pretty good. It brought back memories of when Hazel Park had the runners. It was interesting to see a 7 furlong chute used on a bull ring. (I went by there 2 years ago and my wife snapped my picture in front of the sign. That was all that was left...a sign, a weed overgrown parking lot, and what was a practically brand new racing facility where I shared one very fun evening razed to the ground.) Today there are casinos all over the place. Battle Creek, Mount Pleasant, and TOLEDO! At least Ohio is letting the tracks have a slice of the action by allowing slots and a share of casino revenue. Here's where Michigan gets me in comparison to Ohio (which at least still has a death penalty). The legislators are always REACTIONARY rather than being REVOLUTIONARY. It is ludicrous that several years ago the Detroit casinos were able to bind with the religious groups and pass a sham law restricting slots at the tracks as "an expansion of gambling". Just an observation, but lotteries and casinos are both hindrances to the sport for sure in Michigan. However, the blame is shared with the horseman (as questionable activity has been occurring in the harness industry for years for which a RICO investigation has been ongoing), the industry itself for not being able to market racing to keep patrons interested, and the idiots in Lansing sucking up to casino interests. ...and people in general want that "fast" action. Handicapping is not an easy game. It takes some degree of intelligence to interpret past performances in addition to hard work in order to win consistently. In contrast, no brains are required to pull a handle or roll dice. Because of this, it will be extremely difficult to ever bring back thoroughbred racing to anywhere near what it once was in Michigan. Even building Pinnacle Race Course had some shady land deals associated with the Wayne County Administration. It was also rumored that in order to get some of the tax breaks, a certain portion of the land was to be purchased by Native American casino interests. So goes the future of racing in Michigan...right down the sewer... Not that Mount Pleasant Meadows should be included in this sentiment. I visited them last year and had a good time for a few races. There's no money in the mutuels, so there is no incentive to manipulate the results. They were running strictly for the purses...as racing should be.
Michigan let Pinnacle Race Course get built on tax incentives and breaks in 2008 then turned around and sabotage the entire project by dissolving the Office of Racing Commissioner in 2009. Nobody saw that coming nor could have foreseen it. Only one third of that track ended up being built yet the local Detroit media TV news side had the audacity to keep bringing up that the jobs promised never occurred. How could it have? Not only that but they took horse racing that had been under agriculture from the time pari-mutual law was enacted and threw it to the wolves. They placed the industry under a 4 member Michigan Control Gaming Board that only oversaw Casino's. They could have cared less about horse racing. They allotted Pinnacle 84 racing dates both in 09' & 10'. In 2010 that number went from 84 to just 3 days. The horsemen/women had to buy back half the dates with their own purse money and in that year the MGCB came back at them a second time to pay them even more money or they were going to end the Meet right then and there a month short. Something you will never hear from these same local news stations here. Their type of journalism is to elude facts and stay focused on the head hunting of the man who sold the land the track was built on for a buck. Never mind the reason why the track truly failed, Michigan's determination to kill off the biggest multi-million dollar revenue making Industry at one time before anybody ever heard of the word lottery or casino. A beyond devastating sad shame. But since this article contains Lisa Campbell whose husband along with a partner owned Pinnacle. They never spent one thin dime on advertising for Pinnnacle the three years it did operate. Nothing, no commercials on TV nor ads for any paper here. They completely mismanaged the very track they built. On big gigantic mess all the way around and like always the horsemen & women suffered because of it, like we didn't suffer enough after the destroyed our real home, The Detroit Race Course. It will never be the same here, never.
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