07/04/2008 11:00PM

Racing nears return in Detroit

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Pinnacle Race Course officials vowed this spring that they would bring back Thoroughbred racing to the Detroit area on July 18, come hell or high water. So far, it's the high water that's been the problem.

"We've had all this rain, that's caused a few setbacks," said Denver Becker, Pinnacle's racing secretary. "The horses were supposed to be on the track June 30, but we're hoping for the ninth [of July] to have the track open and the horses training."

There has been no Thoroughbred racing in the Detroit area since Detroit Race Course closed in 1998. When its successor, Great Lakes Downs in Muskegon in the western part of the state, announced last year that it would close, Detroit-area banking magnate and horseman Jerry Campbell gathered a consortium of investors to build a track in suburban Huron Township, near Detroit Metropolitan Airport. Some considered the project a pipe dream. Pinnacle general manager Allan Plever was among the doubters.

"If someone were to say to you on August 30 of last year, in less than 11 months you'll be racing in Detroit on this field that was primarily a swamp, you would say, 'You're insane. You need to see a shrink,'" Plever said. "Jerry had a vision, and it's actually coming into play right now."

Work began this spring and the project has literally weathered the storm. There is seating for more than 1,000 fans trackside in a temporary grandstand and a 12,000 square-foot corporate pavilion offers additional seating. There are only 850 parking spots available, but Plever said that alternative plans are in place to take care of any overflow. Long-term plans call for a three-story, 60,000 square-foot clubhouse and a permanent grandstand that will seat 4,000.

Racing is scheduled to begin July 18 and continue on Fridays through Sundays and Tuesdays until Aug. 31. At that point, Sundays will be dropped and Mondays will be added until the Nov. 2 closing day.

While the final touches are being made for the fans, stall space for the horsemen is now the primary problem, according to Becker.

"There are 600 stalls and about 545 will be stabled with horses ready to run," he said. "We're expecting a full house. I'll need a full barn for the ship-ins because I'll need to depend on ship-ins. We'll need about 300 horses a week."

Both Becker and Plever have received interest from Kentucky horsemen looking for somewhere to race with the shutdown of Ellis Park because of a dispute with horsemen over revenue generated from account wagering.

"I kind of wish we had additional stall space," Plever said. "We've gotten several calls in the last few days from Kentucky trainers looking for an alternative. That would be a real shot in the arm for us."

Becker said that purses will total about $75,000 per day, with a bottom of $6,000 and a top of $15,000. He said he is doing everything he can to fill nine races a day and avoid short fields.

"We're going to do whatever it takes," Becker said. "We're going to play the hand we're dealt."

Plever said that the parimutuel system is in place, clerk training will take place this week, and a tote board is on the way, but will likely not arrive by opening day.

And so the dark clouds of a rainy spring seem ready to give way to the silver lining of a bright summer. Thoroughbred racing is coming back to Detroit.