Hazel Park serving to restore horse racing’s luster

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News
Phillip Bridges Jr., nicknamed Cowboy, gets a horse ready to go out onto the track from the stables.

Hazel Park — Phillip Bridges Jr. is standing caked in mud, sweat and hay, while a soft warm breeze makes everyone around the Hazel Park horse barn remind you — you’re standing in a horse barn.

The smell isn’t lovely. And it’s hot.

You have to really love the atmosphere, and Bridges, or “Cowboy” as he’s known around Hazel Park, does.

“Because it’s all I know and I love it,” said Bridges, a shed foreman. “I love doing it and when you get good at something you do, you love it every day ... it’s not work.

“I love this game.”

Bridges, 65, isn’t alone in that thinking.

There’s no glory or big salaries or fame for trainers, groomers, outriders, hot walkers, exercise riders, and other thankless but crucial jobs around the track.

They work at Hazel Park until its season ends in September, and then head to another track down south, toiling under the sun and looking after majestic horses.

It’s all they do — and it’s all they want to do.

Bridges has worked in Louisiana, Chicago, Canada, and Kentucky. But Detroit is home, and specifically Hazel Park.

“It’s changed over the years,” said Bridges, who remembers when horse racing thrived and there were 1,500 horses milling around the barns (there are about 400 now). “It was buzzing back in the day. It was like everywhere, trotters and thoroughbreds both here, it was a lot of fun.

“It’s still fun. Just not like it used to be.”

Like it used to be

Everyone at Hazel Park remembers bustling crowds, thousand of horses — and walking to work.

Many of the workers, in fact, lived in nearby neighborhoods around 10 Mile Road and Dequindre.

“I’d be able to get home faster,” said Ronnie Houghton, a former jockey turned outrider (maintains a safe environment on the track for horses and riders). “We had so many people here, they would chain off some of the roads and I could just get home quicker if I didn’t drive.”

Ronnie Houghton is a former jockey turned outrider at Hazel Park.

So, when thoroughbred racing returned to Hazel Park in 2014 after a 30-year absence — only harness racing was on the schedule — trainers and horsemen who left town quickly returned.

And the family atmosphere returned.

“It was the like the band got back together,” said Mark Mafale, of Lexington (Ky.)-based Brookledge Horse Transportation. “We were all together here in the 1960s, we grew up together, and when they said they were running (thoroughbreds), we all came back.

“We were kids back then. We branched out, other places, other things. But we all came back. This is home.”

Mike Iwinski, who started working at Hazel Park for his father (a former trainer) when he was five, comes to Hazel Park seven days a week before heading to the painting company he owns in Rochester Hills.

He grew up around the corner from Hazel Park and begged his father, then a trainer, to let him help around the track. He was five years old.

“It just gets in your blood,” Iwinski said. “The horses keep you coming back. There’s the thrill of winning but those horses are beautiful animals and there’s a satisfaction of taking care of these horses and getting them to the point where they race.”

Splitting the take

You spend any time around the Hazel Park, and you can’t help but feel the optimism.

Maybe it’s wishful thinking. Maybe it’s misguided hope.

But maybe it’ll be close to what it was — soon.

Paige Fulcher walks Saving Sadie near the stables at Hazel Park.

A bill in the Michigan Legislature hopes to update 1995 racing laws and keep revenues site-specific — Hazel revenues are pooled with harness track Northville Downs.

“That bill goes through and we’ll be in good shape,” trainer Frank Garoufalis said. “The purses would be bigger. You’d get the horses back.”

Everyone wants Hazel Park to be successful.

The majority of trainers are Michigan-based and race at Hazel Park, but also keep horses in Ohio or Illinois or Kentucky, where purses are larger.

“We’ve raised our kids here, we never wanted to leave,” said horse owner Virginia Uelmen, a secretary and treasurer in the horsemen’s association. “It’s gone from racing five or six days a week to 30 days (total). It’s hard to make a living.

“I don’t know if it’s crazy (to be optimistic). But we are. ... Racing has to survive.”

And the numbers may attest to that trend.

Attendance averaged around 4,000 last year, and improvements to patio areas — fans are closer to the track — could peak interest.

And, the fans are young.

“A new generation is getting into it, which is important because you have to get new people into the sport,” Houghton said. “The old-timers (fans, bettors) are here every day. They go upstairs and sit in the clubhouse and they’re here every day (betting on races around the country). But we need younger fans of the sport.”

Bridges agrees.

He loves what is happening in Detroit, the resurgence and people excited about living and working in the city, and sees similarities at Hazel Park Raceway.

“It’ll get better,” he said. “Just like Detroit. Just like the old days.”


Twitter: @tkulfan