Hazel Park horse track closure ‘devastating’

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Hazel Park — The long, twilight struggle for thoroughbred racing in Michigan finally may have ended.

The horses come around the final turn, Friday June 27, 2014, during the third race on the first day of thoroughbred racing at Hazel Park Raceway in Hazel Park.

Like a lot of owners and breeders and others when they heard Thursday that the 69-year-old Hazel Park Raceway closed, Lisa Campbell said she believes her life in horse racing is slipping away.

Historic trends in gambling and at the track, with the advent of the state lottery and casinos, may finally have sounded the death knell for the sport. Northville Downs is now the only track in the state, and it offers harness racing.

“It’s very devastating to me,” said Campbell, whose history in thoroughbred racing includes struggling with her former husband, Jerry, to own tracks, breed the horses and keep the sport alive.

With about 40 of the 400 thoroughbreds expected for the 2018 racing season already in stalls at Hazel Park, breeders, owners, trainers, jockeys and the 90 employees on the staff of the track got word that the owners were negotiating a sale, which may be closed in the next few weeks.

The details of the business make it difficult for some involved in Michigan, especially the owners and breeders, to compete even in nearby Ohio, Indiana and Pennsylvania.

Even if they can afford the additional transportation costs, the bigger purses in those states draw some of the better breeders from Kentucky, making some of the Michigan-bred horses less competitive.

Jockeys and trainers looked for other employment around the country Thursday. But it is late for making arrangements this year.

Hazel Park Raceway has hosted horse races since 1949. But the rise of the state lottery and casinos did much to reduce the popularity of gambling at the track.

‘Not the best day’

Owners and breeders faced an immediate, critical need: Where to house the horses they had intended to keep at Hazel Park this summer.

But an overarching need occupied the minds of many. Without a place to race in Michigan, it is likely many if not most thoroughbred breeders in the state, and many others involved in the sport, would abandon the sport or the state.

“Well, it’s not the best day,” said Rick McCune, president of the Michigan Thoroughbred Owners & Breeders Association.

“If we would have had some cooperation out of the legislators in the state of Michigan with a couple, three bills that we tried to get passed, we might have still been in business,” he said.

“We tried to get slot machines at the race track back in 2003. That got killed.”

For several years, people in thoroughbred racing hoped the state would adopt “advanced deposit wagering (ADW),” in which bettors put money into accounts before betting. It allows placing the bet online or by phone.

“That would have helped,” McCune said. “It’s just been impossible to get anything done legislatively in this state.

“We’ve got a bill sitting in the Senate right now — it’s sat there for about six, seven, eight months — that would have given us ADW. The House passed it, they promised us a month-and-a-half ago that would be put through in the second week of March, and we’re waiting on any action there.”

But facilitating remote wagering is only the latest chapter of a saga in which, people in horse racing say, the state has favored casinos and the state lottery.

“You really can’t say that they are anti-gambling when you’ve got 24 casinos in the state,” McCune said.

In 2016, at the behest of thoroughbred racing interests, the state amended its two-decades-old horse racing law to set a new, more convenient contract deadline for the tracks and reconfigure the way purse money is paid.

Hazel Park and Northville Downs benefited, but those hoping to preserve racing say they needed more help.

They had been asking for it for a while.

Owners and breeders faced an immediate, critical need: Where to house the horses they had intended to keep at Hazel Park this summer.

High cost of racing

Hazel Park Raceway opened Aug. 17, 1949, with a thoroughbred meet. The first harness racing meet came in the spring of 1953.

The track ran both breeds from 1949 to 1984 before becoming exclusively a harness racing course.

In May 2014 it went back to the thoroughbreds.

The 1960s and 1970s were busy years at the track and many others around the state. But the advent of the Michigan State Lottery and the establishment of casinos did much to reduce the popularity of gambling at the track.

In 1996, the state allowed Hazel Park and other tracks to offer simulcast betting, including on the big, international races like the Triple Crown and the Breeders’ Cup.

In 2004, a new 40,000-square-foot grandstand, including a press box and gaming facility, replaced the old grandstands.

The improvements were, in part, in anticipation of video lottery gaming and other casino devices coming to Hazel Park Raceway. But the legislation required never became law.

Gambling on horses has a long history in Michigan.

After the state legalized pari-mutuel betting in 1933, a track at the Detroit Fairgrounds held meets. It is there the great Seabiscuit turned around his career. The track became noted nationally for the Michigan Mile.

In the 1940s, Northville and Jackson became sites for harness racing tracks and Hazel Park opened.

In 1950, the Detroit Race Course replaced the track at the fairgrounds.

Although horse racing had already begun to decline, tracks opened in Hillsdale, Saginaw, Swartz Creek, Muskegon and Mount Pleasant in the 1970s and 1980s.

Hazel Park Raceway hosted only harness racing from 1985 to 2014, before switching back to thoroughbred use.

All of those tracks are now closed, except Northville.

The Campbells tried to open the Pinnacle Race Course in Huron Township in 2008, but closed in 2010.

Now, after a life of entrepreneurship, Lisa thinks she may be done.

“We’ve been begging and pleading to remain competitive with the surrounding states,” Campbell said, some of which have allowed advanced casino-style gaming at the tracks.

Campbell said she trained horses Thursday morning and prepared to put them on vans for transportation to Hazel Park Raceway before she got a call telling her not to bother.

The impact on Campbell Stables is significant, because in addition to her own horses, Campbell provides breeding services.

“The big part of keeping it going is my breeders’ money. My breeders’ checks ran between $30,000 and $50,000 a year. That’s not small change.

“Now, keep in mind, I win a lot of races, that is what’s helping keep the farm going is those breeders’ checks. And, if you foal them in Michigan, they’ve got to race in Michigan to get that money.

“So, how do I keep this farm floating with the brood mares and the stallion, if there’s no supplement coming to run it?”

She wondered about her farm employees, her racing employees, the dealer from whom she buys a truck every year, the hay vendor.

But she did not wonder about her future, Campbell said.

“I’m selling everything.”