Harness Trouble In Michigan
Officials at Hazel Park Raceway and Northville Downs have reached agreement with the Michigan Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association (MHPBA) to race thoroughbred meets at both racetracks in 2014.
If the applications and plans are approved by the Michigan Gaming Control Board, both tracks will conduct only 10-day harness meets next year and fulfill their date requests with thoroughbred/mixed-breed racing.
The reduction in standardbred dates comes as a result of a breakdown in legislative negotiations between the racetracks and the Michigan Harness Horsemen's Association (MHHA) over distribution of the state's simulcast money that goes into the purse fund. Both Hazel Park and Northville Downs had submitted 2014 date applications with the Michigan Gaming Control Board for 44 and 26 dates, respectively, and both have now amended their applications.
"Obviously, we will object to this on the fact that the application amendments have already been rejected by the Gaming Control Board,” said MHHA general manager Phil Stommen. "The tracks testified the amendments had nothing to do with the legislation breaking down, but it was pretty clear to anybody in the room that it was hogwash. While they certainly have every reason to pursue dealings with whoever would be the most financially beneficial to them, essentially throwing the Michigan industry into turmoil for 2014 because of their frustration over the legislative negotiations isn't good for anybody.”
According to Dan Adkins, vice president and chief operating officer for Hartman & Tyner Inc., which owns Hazel Park, that track would race a 10-day harness meet (three days a week) from April 12-May 4, with 32 days of thoroughbred racing beginning on June 29 (three days a week the first two weeks and then two days a week) until October 11. Northville would race its 10-day harness meet in January and/or February, and then race 16 thoroughbred cards after Hazel Park closed.
"From Hazel Park's standpoint, the industry is in trouble. Michigan's racetracks are in the position where they can't do what all the surrounding states are doing and offering additional products,” said Adkins. "It's not for lack of trying; back in 2004 we almost had slot machines and the casinos came in and passed a constitutional amendment that basically shut everything down.
"We're in trouble and if the industry is going to survive, there needs to be cooperation. There was a serious lack of cooperation from the harness horsemen to get anything positive done. The thoroughbreds were obviously more cooperative and more willing to try and save themselves and be productive. Hazel Park has run thoroughbreds before and this just seemed the time to change direction and work with a group that seemed the most willing to work toward a positive ending.”
What makes the situation even more unique is that Northville Downs is a half-mile oval and would need work to accommodate thoroughbreds.
"We will have to take a little of the banking out of the turns,” Northville Downs' John Carlo explained. "We'll also take down the four-bay garage where the gas pumps are as well as the bathroom that is at the end of the paddock, and that will allow a chute to run almost to the log cabin back there.”
Hazel Park opened as a thoroughbred racetrack in 1949, adding standardbreds in 1953. In 1985 Hazel Park went strictly with a 168-date harness meet with thoroughbreds raced solely at Detroit Racecourse (DRC), which at the time was owned by Ladbrokes. DRC closed in 1998 and the thoroughbreds eventually landed at the new Pinnacle Downs near Metropolitan Airport in the far west suburbs of Detroit, but that track also soon closed. Since then, Mount Pleasant Meadows, a half-mile racetrack in central Michigan, hosted a mixed breed thoroughbred/quarter-horse meet and that track would continue do so in the spring of 2014 with a 12-day meet before the opening of Hazel Park.
"The horsemen, breeders, and everybody associated with thoroughbreds are happy that this deal was reached,” said MHBPA president George Kutlenios. "It came down to the tracks needing to change the whole paradigm of racing and they found a willing partner to move forward with us.
"We actually looked at Northville Downs a while back as a possible site for thoroughbred racing. We came up with a plan where we can adjust the track to soften up the corner, which was of utmost concern, and put a chute there.”