04/23/2004 12:00AM

The race is on - in several places


Yet another development on the busy Michigan Thoroughbred horse racing scene will take place on Sunday: Horse racing.

After a seemingly endless off-season parade of legislative maneuvering, track license applications, "racino" rumors, and politics as usual, the actual sport gets back in the saddle Saturday when Great Lakes Downs begins its sixth meeting at the track near Muskegon on the state's west side.

Great Lakes, which has been home to the sport in Michigan since the Detroit Race Course shut its doors in 1998, has always struggled business-wise and faces an uncertain future.

"We've accepted the fact that we're living on pins and needles. There's been a slow decline over the years," said Amy MacNeil, track assistant general manager. "The legislation is the key. Everyone is aware of that."

The legislation in question is a package of bills that has been stalled in a state Senate committee since it was passed by the House last May. The primary impact of the bills would be to allow video lottery terminals at state tracks. The perceived financial bonanza of that prospect has spurred a rush of candidates to apply for new racing licenses. Most applicants want to build in the Detroit area, and a big new Detroit track could spell the end of tiny Great Lakes Downs.

That prospect has cast a pall over the normal chaos involved in getting a race meeting started. Racing secretary Alan Plever has tried to keep a lid on things as all parties wait to hear whether Michigan racing will shift back to the Detroit area.

"The horsemen have been patient," Plever said. "They're anxious to hear some good news. It's been a long wait."

Plever said that purses at the meet will average $61,000 per day. He expects to have about 800 horses on hand by the time the bell rings for Sunday's opening race.

"That's hardly enough to get full fields four days a week," he said. "But the weather has been good. We haven't missed any training days. I think they're a lot fitter this year."

The names of many of the trainers and riders will be familiar to a generation of Michigan racing fans.

"The standard guys are all back," said Plever, ticking off the names of trainers Gerald Bennett, Ronnie Allen, Chet Hurt, and Reid Gross - and jockeys Felipe Santos, Frederico Mata, Mary Dosier, and Louis Martinez.

There will be one new "old" face in the riding colony. Jockey Terry Houghton, who is battling for the lead in the Tampa Bay Downs jockey standings, will return after missing more than a year following a concussion he received in a racing accident at Great Lakes in August 2002. Houghton began his comeback at Tampa in December.

MacNeil said the track plans to formally greet the return of its former riding champion. "May 8 will be 'Welcome Back Terry Houghton Day' at Great Lakes Downs," she said.

Meanwhile, all eyes are focused on Lansing, where the VLT bill is expected to come out of committee and onto the Senate floor for a vote within the month.

State Republicans want the legislation to pass. Democrats, the minority in both houses, are looking for a quid pro quo for their support. Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat, has been conspicuous by her neutrality on the issue, but published reports are that she is looking for GOP support on a new cigarette tax in return for pushing the "go" button on the racing bills.

The process has been bogged down to the degree that Frank Stronach, chairman of racetrack conglomerate Magna Entertainment, considered a strong favorite to receive a license for a suburban Detroit track, requested and got a St. Patrick's Day meeting with Granholm. Stronach has publicly stated his displeasure of the slow pace at which the wheels are turning.

"We're getting jerked around," Stronach told the Detroit News.

State Racing Commissioner Robert Geake said his office is continuing to study the applications.

"We're reviewing them to assess the degree to which they reflect financial viability and in terms of whether they have local support," Geake said.

Geake is handcuffed by the legislation, also. Since there are marked differences in the Senate and House versions of the bill, no one is certain what the final law will look like. For example, the House version legislates that no new track can be built within 10 miles of an existing track. If that provision sticks, two applications to build a track at the state fairgrounds can be trashed, since the fair grounds are exactly two miles from Hazel Park Harness Raceway.

In all of this, Detroit's casinos are not standing by idly. Since Michigan voters approved the development of three non-Indian casinos in the City of Detroit in 1996, the casinos have been a powerful lobbying force in Lansing.

On Wednesday, a group backed by the casinos won language approval by the State Board of Canvassers for a petition that would require a statewide vote for new lottery games - such as VLTs at racetracks. It would also require approval by the local community.

The petition stipulates that the requirements would take effect in January 2004, which means that it would affect the current legislation on VLTs at racetracks.

The group needs to collect 317,000 signatures of registered voters by mid-July to get the measure on the Nov. 2 ballot.

And so the waiting game continues: For the petition drive to begin, for the Senate to vote, for Granholm to make her deal, for Geake to issue the licenses, for Michigan racing to return to normal. Not that anyone remembers what normal is any more.