June 23, 2014 at 1:00 am

Hazel Park horse race track trots out Thoroughbreds, big overhaul

Hazel Park — Thoroughbreds are hot-blooded and gifted with speed, nimbleness and passion.

Standardbreds are more easygoing, trainable and stouter. They are skilled at trotting or running at pace in races in which strategy, not swiftness, is paramount.

The difference, said Rocky Truman, as he approached a wagering window during simulcast betting at Hazel Park Raceway, is exciting.

“I just don’t like the way they run, the trotters,” said Truman, of Warren. “They follow each other around and they try to grandstand at the end.

“I don’t care for that, never have.”

That sensibility is driving a remarkable makeover of a historic racetrack and, potentially, the horse racing industry in Metro Detroit. After 30 years of running only Standardbreds, Hazel Park Raceway begins a 16-week meet exclusively for Thoroughbreds on Friday. They will run on Fridays and Saturdays through Oct. 11.

“It’s better racing,” Truman said, repeating an assertion of many, if not all, fans of horse racing. “You’ve got them all trying.

“I’ll be here from the opening until they close.”

To accommodate the lither, smaller-boned, sensitive Thoroughbreds, the 65-year-old raceway is utterly transforming.

The old limestone track with the half-inch cushion is becoming almost all sand and a bit of clay, with 6,200 tons of new material dumped, worked in, grated and feathered over the past month.

“It’s got a lot of give,” said Ladd Biro, the track manager, as he sat in a cart on the far turn, just above Dequindre Road, watching an earthmover work the sand.

“Thoroughbreds have to race on a much softer surface than Standardbreds do. They’re more fragile.

“This is about 4 ½, 5 inches deep of just sand. It prevents horses, hopefully, from getting lame.”

The five-eighths-mile track, which helped set that standard from coast to coast when it opened in 1949, is on the way to being completely redone, including new chutes, from where the horses start at different lengths.

Harness racing horses require a gap between pylons marking the inside of the track and the rail. By rule, if a horse falls off stride, drivers must go to the outside. But, if blocked, they are forced inside, to the gap.

Thoroughbreds often run directly on the rail, with their occasionally rambunctious personalities.

“We had to move the rail out, about 8 feet, and everything was resurveyed accordingly, to maintain the integrity of the five-eighths,” Biro said.

The banking, the high part of the turns, is not needed by Thoroughbreds and potentially a hazard. The banking has been substantially leveled.

Even greater change is occurring in the vast barn area, largely unused since the last Thoroughbreds ran at Hazel Park in 1984. It has been 40 or 50 years since the several barns burgeoned with 1,500 horses stabling there.

Because of their more sensitive nature and less sturdy build, Thoroughbreds generally are not shipped in and out for races, as Standardbreds often are.

Horse owners and trainers tend to arrive, set up temporary stables, race for portions or all of the meet, and move on. And some of the vast barns at Hazel Park, which have appeared like relics of a bygone era of American sport for decades, are being prepared for resurrection.

The track secretary, Mary Anne Barron, is a horsewoman across generations.

“For me, it’s like coming full circle,” Barron said. “I was training horses here in 1984. It’s 30 years later, 2014. I’m in a little different capacity, but as for a lot of Michigan horsemen, it will be coming full circle.

“They’re just over the moon. They’re just ecstatic, absolutely ecstatic.

'Coming home'

“For a lot of them, like myself, we’ve been back there since the early ’60s, late ’50s, and it’s like coming home.”

The foremost issue is likely to be how many do come home.

Horse racing in Michigan has suffered for a generation or more from the exodus of horses, owners and trainers who headed to the greener pastures of larger purses, in places like Meadowlands Racetrack in New Jersey and even Hoosier Park and Indiana Downs, in Indiana.

The Pinnacle Racetrack in New Boston lasted just three years.

At Hazel Park, the hope is those owners and trainers return in large numbers and that more are drawn from Indiana or Ohio, where Thoroughbreds race at the ThistleDown Racino.

Meanwhile, owners and trainers of Standardbreds in the state are concerned they will have to leave to find enough dates to compete.

The back-and-forth may result in diminishing the pool of viable Standardbreds, while the quest for a deeper pool of quality Thoroughbreds is difficult to realize.

“As long as they have successfully done a good job of reconfiguring the track, it should be good quality racing,” said Bill Ballenger, now associate editor of Inside Michigan Politics, who also writes about horse racing.

“The only question or problem is what the quality of the horses is. How good are the horses, now, compared to what they were 30 or 40 years ago, when they last raced at Hazel Park? Or, how good are they compared to the horses that have raced in Michigan in the last decade?

“Horse racing has been so badly damaged, and the state’s bungling of how to run it, Thoroughbreds have either folded or collapsed or they’ve moved to other states. The question is, will they come back for this?”

Biro and Barrow think they will. And so does the general manager, Ken Marshall, who started working with his father, Ken Sr., at the raceway after graduating from Hazel Park High School in the 1960s.

“They had some tremendous crowds for Thoroughbred racing here in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, right into the ’80s, and, yeah, everybody’s very excited about it,” Marshall said.

Amid the sharp decline of horse racing in Michigan, when the Detroit Race Course — which opened as a Thoroughbred track in 1950 and closed in 1998 — folded, Jack van Berg, one of the great trainers in history, bought a lot of the equipment and moved it to a training center in La Grange, Ky.

Training a legend

Among other great horses, van Berg trained a legend, Aleysheba, the winner of the 1987 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes and the 1988 Breeder’s Cup Classic, who retired as the all-time leading money earner in North America.

“I’ve been in Detroit since I was 9 or 10 years old,” said van Berg, who recalls hanging around the barns at both Hazel Park and the track at the Michigan State Fairgrounds on Eight Mile when he was a child with his father, the horse trainer Marion, who raced in the city for decades.

“Detroit offered the greatest racing there was at one time,” said van Berg, who will return to the track opening night, Friday, with copies of his book, “Jack, From Grit to Glory.”

“They didn’t take care of it,” van Berg said. “They didn’t cater to the young people. They ended up with old people and they didn’t have any new fans. It’s such a great sport when you see the young people come and want to be close to the horses and see the horses.

“It’s a blessing, something Detroit has needed.”

Some fans say that, especially amid the travails, Thoroughbred racing returning to a centralized location near the interchange of I-75 and I-696 in Oakland Count, is a moment pregnant with possibility.

Enjoying the action

“Thoroughbred is so different from the buggies for me, I like the high action of it,” said Rene Vest of Warren, who has been attending Hazel Park Raceway since she was a little girl and eventually worked at a betting window some years ago.

“I think it will help the industry, at least in the beginning,” Vest said. “I don’t know if it will last, though. But it’s a different kind of excitement.”

And that, according to her husband, Arlie, is what it is all about.

“I’ve always loved the Thoroughbreds,” Vest said. “Way back, when they used to run, I came over; me and my brother.

“My older brother won’t even come, if they don’t have Thoroughbreds.

“With Thoroughbreds, one horse can just take off all of a sudden and be gone, just going with it, from the back of the field — and gone!”

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Trainer Michael Johns leads Dreaming for Now into the Hazel Park Raceway stables. After 30 years of running only Standardbreds, the raceway begins a 16-week meet exclusively for Thoroughbreds on Friday. / Photos by Daniel Mears / The Detroit News
The raceway is being transformed to accommodate the lither, smaller-boned, ... (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)
Dreaming for Now and Cool Ride are the first Thoroughbred horses to arrive ... (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)
Hazel Park Raceway visitors watch other races across the country in the ... (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)
Kala Crampton races Danger Zone during warmups and practice at Hazel Park ... (John M. Galloway / Special to The Detroit News)