10/31/2008 12:00AM

Pinnacle meet will grow in 2009


NEW BOSTON, Mich. - In a dismal investment environment of falling stock prices, shrinking interest rates on savings, and record real estate foreclosures, it does not seem like a great plan for your money: Build a Thoroughbred racetrack on a marsh in a state with a collapsing manufacturing base and the highest unemployment rate in the nation.

A year ago, backers of Pinnacle Race Course decided on just that strategy, constructing a track on a bog near Detroit Metropolitan Airport in an effort to keep Thoroughbred racing alive in Michigan. And as the initial meeting at Pinnacle draws to a close on Sunday, it is too early to render a verdict on whether that strategy was a sound one.

Pinnacle is still in building mode. There is only one permanent structure on the track, a pavilion that can accommodate several hundred people and is meant to host party groups. There are outside tables and chairs along the apron, a tent with a portable bar alongside the pavilion, and temporary seating near the finish line that resembles the bleacher seats at a high school football game.

Long-term plans - collectively known as Phase 2 - include the construction of a permanent clubhouse, a turf track inside the one-mile dirt strip, and a retail mall on the outlying property. Other plans will increase the number of barns to aid a chronic shortage of horses in the first season. Due to the ailing economy and tight credit markets, some of the plans will likely be delayed.

"There will still be a Phase 2; how quickly it progresses will be decided over the next months," said Pinnacle general manager Alan Plever. "I know for sure we're going to add some barns for next year. We only had 580 stalls and that worked to our detriment."

Plans for Pinnacle began when Great Lakes Downs in the western part of the state announced that it would end its financially disappointing eight-year tenure as the home of Michigan Thorougbred racing at the end of 2007. Investors, led by local banking magnate Jerry Campbell, decided on the bold but risky plan to build Pinnacle. Construction began in early April and, despite a rainy spring, the bell for the opening race rang on July 18.

With no admission charge, attendance has been difficult to gauge. Fans and a good number of families crowded the track, particularly on Sundays. Ontrack handle from live racing shows a significant upswing from Great Lakes. Plever said that daily live handle was hovering around $45,000 going into the final week. Great Lakes averaged $20,753 in ontrack handle in 2007.

Average daily all-sources handle was $162,140, for the meet, which was scheduled for 63 days but lost one card to flooding.

Pinnacle originally applied for 71 racing dates in 2009 but that figure weas increased to 82 following negotiations with the Michigan Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association. Racing will begin June 5 and end Oct. 24.

And Pinnacle is here to stay according to Plever.

"I don't think there's any question at all," he said. "Otherwise we've all been wasting a lot of time."

Not to mention money. Pinnacle Race Course may be humble at this point, but for Michigan racing fans and horsemen, it is home. And home is never a bad investment.