12/03/2013 3:13PM

Michigan tracks, horsemen agree on plan to return Thoroughbred racing to the Detroit area

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The Michigan Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association has agreed to move Thoroughbred and mixed-breed racing next year to Detroit-area harness tracks Hazel Park Harness Raceway and Northville Downs, making them both permanent Thoroughbred racing sites, pending state approval.

The five-year agreement was reached on Dec. 1, a deadline set by the Michigan Gaming Control Board after the tracks earlier this year proposed amendments to their live dates applications to include Thoroughbred and mixed-breed licenses. The contracts have been sent to the board’s office and await approval.

The Michigan HBPA has been in talks with both tracks, as well as Flint-area harness venue Sports Creek Raceway, to host Thoroughbred racing since the closure of Pinnacle Race Course in southern Detroit at the end of 2010. Since Pinnacle’s closure, the state’s Thoroughbred meet has been conducted at Mount Pleasant Meadows, a mixed-breed track in rural central Michigan.

“We were in intense negotiations with both of these tracks for a long time,” said George Kutlenios, president of the Michigan HBPA. “The gaming board came back to us and said, ‘If you can put together a viable plan on or before Dec. 1, we’ll take a look at it.’ We worked real hard at it. I can’t tell you how many hundreds of hours are in this plan, but the plan came together.”

Under the new plan, Northville would conduct 10 days of harness racing next year from March 7 to April 5 and Hazel Park would host a 10-day harness meet from April 12 to May 3. Construction to turn both tracks into Thoroughbred venues would begin in May.

As part of the agreement, the Michigan HBPA would repay conversion costs for Hazel Park and Northville up to $300,000 each.

Mount Pleasant would offer 12 days of Thoroughbred and mixed-breed racing on Saturdays and Sundays from May 3 to June 8. After that, live racing would no longer be held at the track, which is leased from the Isabella County Fairgrounds.

The new agreement came as something of a surprise to Tom Fritz, vice president of Mount Pleasant’s operating group, Oil Capital Ventures. While Fritz said the development could jeopardize the track’s future, he would wait until the state weighed in on the arrangement before jumping to conclusions.

“I’ll believe it when they do the bulldozing,” Fritz said about the shift to the harness venues. “We’ve got investors paying the bills right now hoping to get their money back next year, which they can if we run a full season. If we run six weeks, they don’t.”

After the Mount Pleasant meet, Thoroughbred and mixed-breed racing would move to Hazel Park for a 32-day stand, from June 29 to Oct. 11, with primarily night racing on Fridays and Saturdays on the track’s five-eighth-mile oval.

The move would mark the return of Thoroughbred racing to Hazel Park, which opened as a Thoroughbred venue in 1949 and was part of a circuit with the now-defunct Detroit Race Course for more than three decades. Hazel Park became harness-exclusive in 1985.

Dan Adkins, vice president and COO of ownership group Hartman and Tyner Inc., said that Hazel Park holds some advantages that could help it survive where Detroit’s previous homes for Thoroughbred racing have failed.

“You could say, ‘Why are you doing this? It sounds risky,’ ” Adkins said. “I think Hazel Park is in a much better location. Hazel Park has a better layout and operation. Running a nighttime Thoroughbred signal, even from the standpoint of trying to sell our product to other outlets, I think is a good idea.”

Northville Downs would conduct 16 days of flat racing from Oct. 12 to Nov. 16, racing Friday through Sunday. The Northville dates are contingent on the track surface renovations and if an account-wagering bill in the state legislature is successful and provides sufficient purse funds.

Once converted, Northville would offer racing on a four-furlong oval. Mike Carlo, operations manager at Northville, said the soft estimate of the cost to get the track ready for Thoroughbred racing would be about $200,000.

If the proper funding is in place, the 2015 Michigan racing calendar would feature 20 dates in April and May at Northville, and 50 days of summer racing from June to October at Hazel Park.

Sports Creek Raceway in Swartz Creek will host 11 days of harness racing from Nov. 28 to Dec. 31, 2014, and will be the state’s only remaining harness venue if the state approves the plan. However, the track’s management has also expressed an interest in hosting Thoroughbred racing in 2015, and negotiations are currently underway.

The changing landscape of racing in Michigan was foreshadowed during the gaming control board’s allotment of 2014 race dates in October. Under original schedule, Mount Pleasant would be the state’s lone flat racing track with 43 live dates, the same as 2013. Hazel Park was approved for 44 harness dates, Northville was allotted 26 days, and Sports Creek was given 11 days.

Mike Imbruglia More than 1 year ago
Michigan is truly a screwed up state in more ways than one...and why not, it is governed by Republican'ts. Harness Racing will not be the only venue to meet its demise. Sakes the city of Detroit went bankrupt.
Ray Wilson More than 1 year ago
This is really bad for thoroughbred racing and for harness racing as well. If they really wanted to get thoroughbred racing a shot in the arm, they would buy Pinnacle in Romulus; fix it up some and try to make it work. The fact that Pinnacle has a turf track as well as dirt, imho would help to get horses from other states. Thoroughbred racing doesn't have very many "bull rings" any more. Charlestown in WV, Los Alamitos and Fairplex in CA come to mind. Although with the closing of Hollywood Park, Los Alamitos is now going to be a 1 mile track next year. Plus Los Alamitos will still have there quarterhorse racing, (which is there bread and butter for racing in southern California). Michigan needs to get thoroughbred racing into the 21st century and bring racing back to Pinnacle Race Course. Leave Hazel Park, Northville Downs, Sports Creek alone and let harness racing build there. Let Mt. Pleasant Meadows have there thoroughbred and Arabian horse racing on weekends in the summer. I do not believe bringing thoroughbred racing back to the old bull rings will help. Just look at old Michigan Downs in Muskegon. That was a harness track converted to thoroughbred racing. How did that work out for racing in Michigan?
Tom Mazawey More than 1 year ago
First off, I want to say that I love all horse racing PERIOD, but Hazel Park and Northville Downs are Standardbred Tracks first and foremost. I grew up 10 minutes from the Meadowlands in NJ and have watched some of the greatest races in history. When I moved to Michigan I fell in love with Hazel Park Raceway, so much that I bring my daughters there to enjoy it as well. There's not a track in the country that has a better 'feel' than HPR, so close to the action that you can actually reach out and touch the horses. I think it's a shame how the state has treated the horseman and fans of this great sport. To let a brand new building go to waste and to keep taking away live racing dates is a travesty. I guess any racing is better than none especially for all my friends that have been starving for work the past 5 years. I just don't get why more people aren't on board, it boggles my mind. I hate those Casinos with all my being, long live the sport of kings...anyway I can get it that is.
Charles Sakach More than 1 year ago
As groundbreaking or earth-shattering this news might be to the Detroit area, DRF is the only one to have this story. All of the media outlets...the TV stations, the Detroit News, and the Detroit Free Press...have ignored this as being news-worthy. That's a huge part of the problem with horse racing in Michigan. There isn't any interest being generated in the media. Years ago...when I was first being introduced to racing...the newspapers used to publish the line-ups with handicapping selections for all of the local tracks. It wasn't just the runners (whether they were as Hazel Park or the DRC), it was all of the harness racing too. It was common for Al Coffman (Detroit News) and Al "Speed" (Detroit Free Press...who may be one in the same...don't know for sure) to have the runners handicapped along with their selections from all of the harness tracks (Windsor, Hazel Park, and Jackson Raceway). Back then, the sports page also listed the thoroughbred results from at least 3 of the major tracks that had meets in progress. I remember seeing results from the Fairgrounds, Aqueduct, Gulfstream, Arlington, Hawthorne, Sportsman's Park, Hialeah, Oaklawn, Hollywood, Santa Anita, etc. You could also buy a Daily Racing Form or harness racing program at several outlets. Sometimes I would go to Leisure Book Mart on Warren (just east of the Southfield Expressway) at 5:00 AM just so I could have one before I went to work. (Leisure was open that early because that is when the deliveries started.) (Yeah, things change. However, it doesn't mean for the better. A few years back, I changed my cable servise to U-Verse because they had TVG and HRTV. Recently, U-Verse dropped TVG because they couldn't come to terms. TVG was literally 50% of the reason I have U-Verse....and no...my cable bill did not go down 1 cent. I think it is time to drop them and get a dish.) This is basically the problem: The media doesn't care because they feel that there is not enough interest. Perhaps there would be, IF THEY JUST WOULD START REPORTING THIS AGAIN! (Geez...)
Dale Zahn More than 1 year ago
The Michigan racetracks need a major attitude adjustment towards racing. No, they need a major Change of Ownership. N'Ville and Hazel Park, are clearly in collusion. Anybody else see this? Now, that being the case, the Sherman Anti-Trust Act comes into place. When competitors collude to do harn, its a violation of the Anti-Trust laws. Hello Lawyers! C'mon in and have a picnic feeding on this.......time to call out N'Ville and HP on this travesty.
Longshot Drc More than 1 year ago
“You could say, ‘Why are you doing this? It sounds risky,’ ” Adkins said. Give me break. Signed into a 5 year contract that the HBPA who won't be able to get out of it even if somebody who had the means & were able to step up to the plate to re-open Pinnacle. The Harness would have the Thoroughbreds exactly where they'd want them as usual "BOUND UP". MIHBPA President Clueless. Insanity: Repeating the same mistakes over & over expecting different results. Albert Einstein....you can say that a million times over with this demented group. Expect a lot of broke down & dead horses racing at NVD. They'll be crashing through the 4 Ft. fence into the crowd. Idiocy at its finest. All of this is absurd.
Claude More than 1 year ago
I am from Ohio. We have our own problems, but things are starting to look better. My heart goes out to all the racing fans in Michigan. This plan is really sad.
Frank Leverone More than 1 year ago
Correct me if I am wrong but, I thought I had checked some charts for Mount Pleasant last year and, if I remember correctly, most of the races had total win-pool handle in the $100 - $200 dollar range (and I don't mean thousands). Exacta pools etc. would handle sometimes less than 50 dollars. This seemed absurd to me. I guess to someone else this seems like opportunity knocking.
John More than 1 year ago
Probably a good idea, even with the economy in recovery mode................If they get some good people to run the tracks and pay attention to the way bets with %14 take out have flourished, they hopefully can help the city recover. Maybe even schedule a major race for the Run to the Roses !
Johnny Perez More than 1 year ago
Reopen pinnacle!
C Pg More than 1 year ago
too many tax issues and unpaid debts from former ownership