Hazel Park cuts season short to save racing for long haul

Rod Beard
The Detroit News

Hazel Park — Citing a financial shortfall, Hazel Park Raceway will have a shortened thoroughbred racing season, gaming board officials announced Wednesday.

Hazel Park officials had applied for 40 racing days this year, on Fridays and Saturdays from May 1-Sept. 12. With the reduction, the last live thoroughbred race is Aug. 8.

It's a blow to the local racing industry, as Hazel Park and Northville Downs are the only racetracks remaining in Michigan. But the shortened season doesn't mean Hazel Park, which switched from harness to thoroughbreds last year, is closing.

"Thoroughbred racing in Hazel Park and bringing it back to the city was a success and a smart thing to do and it's going to be a success in the future," said Dan Adkins, vice president at Hazel Park Raceway.

The financial issues arose out of the anticipated budget for this year, which was about $2.2 million. With 40 race dates, the prize purse should have averaged about $51,000 per day, according to the Michigan Gaming Control Board. But Hazel Park Raceway went beyond that figure — sometimes as much as $75,000 some nights — according to the board.

"We were disappointed to learn there are insufficient funds available to race beyond Aug. 8," Richard Kalm, executive director of the board, wrote in a news release.

Kalm said there doesn't appear to be misspending or wrongdoing. Rather, Hazel Park and the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, which oversees the prize pools, overspent based on the projected budget.

Adkins explained the strategy was to spend more early to open on a high and bolster attendance to compete with tracks in surrounding states.

"The Horsemen directed more money into early purses so we could attract people," he said. "We're competing with Ohio, Illinois and Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Those racetracks have purse money that's subsidized from gaming. Early this year, Thistledown (in Cleveland), raised their daily purses up to almost $150,000.

"That's why we had to come out of the box with $75,000 — we have to compete."

Adkins said the problems go beyond the prize purses, pointing to a 1995 law that handcuffs Hazel Park to harness (standardbred) racing and doesn't account for their switch to thoroughbreds.

At the time the law was enacted, there were eight tracks in Michigan. But with the others closing, there's an inequity in the funding distribution. Sports Creek Raceway, located in Swartz Creek, closed this year, and the lost revenue from its simulcast racing generated a domino effect for Hazel Park.

"The closure of Sports Creek eliminated 26 percent of the contributions into the simulcast purse pool," Adkins said. "The distribution to Hazel Park would have been about $300,000. Even if Sports Creek would have been allowed to continue to operate, we could have made it.

"In October, when we were issued the dates, we assumed Sports Creek would be contributing and they're not."

Adkins also pointed to $1 million that is in escrow held by the board that could have been used to keep a full schedule. That money, however, is earmarked for standardbred (harness) racing, which Hazel Park discontinued this year after running thoroughbred and harness last year.

The switch to thoroughbreds is helping attendance, which is up about 20 percent to 6,000-7,000 per night, Adkins said.

The shortened season also is leaving owners and trainers in a lurch, having to make alternate plans for the remainder of the season.

"It's hit everybody financially because everybody is scrambling now to find where they can finish up their horses," said Rose Neihardt, owner and trainer of Rainbow's End Stable in Fremont. "I've got to figure out where I'm going to go from here. That means locating a new track, finding a new place to live, more entry fees and licensing fees."

Neihardt said there were discussions among the horsemen's association about other options.

"In mid-June, we had a meeting and they said they were running out of money," she said. "They said, 'We can run until the end of July or cut purses.' We all said run until the money's out."