Hazel Park Raceway evolving into entertainment hub

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News
Thoroughbred racing returns to Hazel Park Raceway Friday.

Hazel Park — It’s not just the horse racing anymore.

As Hazek Park Raceway returns for another thoroughbred racing season Friday, the sport has evolved from simply making bets and watching horses race to an evening out.

Food, drinks, socializing on a patio near the track with family or friends – it’s all part of the new snapshot of a night (or day) out at the horse track.

“That model is morphing into a total entertainment value,” said Mike Stommen, assistant director of track operations.

Operators of the longtime track are excited about the possibility of providing entertainment throughout this summer — racing every Friday and Saturday from May 27 to September 3, a total of 30 dates  after seeing its season end prematurely last year.

Hazel Park shortened its 2015 season citing a financial shortfall as the track and the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, which oversees the prize pools, overspent on the prize purses.

With 40 race dates last year, the Michigan Gaming Control Board estimates the prize purse should have averaged $51,000 per day (on a $2.2 million budget). But Hazel Park went as high as $75,000 some nights in an effort to compete early in the season with surrounding states and ignite interest in the Detroit market.

Just as importantly, when Swartz Creek Raceway closed last year it resulted in lost revenue from simulcast racing, which affected the overall revenue pool.

Stommen said Hazel Park Raceway will work closely with the horsemen’s association this summer to ensure there will not similar “miscalculations.”

Hazel Park is excited about the possibility of increasing on last year's 4,000 attendance average.

An expanded patio section just past the finish line — doubling the size of the patio area — along with picnic benches made from torn barns at the track puts fans close to the action and gives them an intimate feel to the sport.

“You’re close to the action,” Stommen said. “You’re close to these fast, powerful athletes and it’s a great night of fun, great racing, and the money you spend goes a lot further than it would in other places.”

Stommen sees a renewed enthusiasm and interest in horse racing locally after American Pharoah’s capturing of the Triple Crown last year, and Nyquist’s failed attempt this spring.

Nyquist, named after Red Wings’ hockey player Gustav Nyquist, won the Kentucky Derby but finished third in the Preakness.

Nyquist will not run in the Belmont because of a health condition.

“Tracks love Triple Crown winners, and you saw the interest generated by American Pharoah,” Stommen said. “Locally, it’s unfortunate what happened to Nyquist. It took a mudder (Exaggerator) to defeat him in those conditions.”

Hazel Park Raceway opened in 1949 and is one of only two active horse racing tracks in the state.

Northville Downs opened its harness racing season in March and ends October 8.

Hazel Park Raceway

What: Thoroughbred racing

Where: 10 Mile and Dequindre

When: Friday-Saturday nights, 7:35 p.m., through Sept. 3

Other: Parking and admission is free.