12/03/2013 4:13PM

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.