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July 16, 2014

Hazel Park Raceway aims to keep up the pace

Strong start to thoroughbred meet is encouraging sign

By Andy Kozlowski
C & G Staff Writer

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On the second day of the thoroughbred meet’s opening weekend June 28, spectators sized up the horses as they were led onto the track at Hazel Park Raceway.

HAZEL PARK — Several weeks into the thoroughbred meet at Hazel Park Raceway, interest remains high, with around 8,000 people showing up July 11.

“We weren’t certain what we would anticipate the third weekend, because it wasn’t a promotional night like the opening (June 27) or the Fourth of July,” said Ladd Biro, director of Hazel Park Raceway. “July 11 wasn’t a promotional night, so we just thought, ‘Let’s see how it goes, with just racing, and no supplements.’”

The clubhouse was sold out both nights that weekend. The crowd of about 8,000 was less than the 14,000 estimated to have shown up opening night, but still much larger than the crowd that used to hit the track prior to the return of the thoroughbreds.

“People who haven’t been to the track, and people who haven’t been there in a while, are coming out because of the interest and the word of mouth,” Biro said. “Now we’re hoping the interest will sustain itself.”

The races start at 7:30 p.m. every Friday and Saturday, from now through Oct. 11.

It’s been 30 years since thoroughbreds last raced at Hazel Park Raceway. Since then, the track has held harness races, where a standardbred horse pulls a two-wheeled cart seating the driver. Now the thoroughbreds are back, and the raceway has converted the hard limestone track into a five-eighths oval of sand and clay, certified for thoroughbreds. It was a $300,000 undertaking that ensures the safety of the horses and the jockeys. 

Thoroughbreds are what people typically think of when they think of horse racing, being the kind of horse seen in the Kentucky Derby. The live spectacle of the thoroughbreds has been a huge draw for the track, attracting people from all over the metropolitan area.

Adding extra value to the experience is the free parking, free admission and affordable food: $1 for hot dogs, popcorn and soft drinks on Friday Dollar Nights, and $2 for a 16-ounce draft beer. In addition, live bands are occasionally booked for the buildup to each race, something Biro said he hopes to continue.

There is also an unused 65,000-square-foot glass-and-steel building at the track that was originally built for $12 million in 2004, in anticipation of the state approving the addition of slots and other forms of gaming at the raceway.

While the legislature passed this, Gov. Jennifer Granholm did not. The 24 tribal and commercial casinos in Michigan lobbied against it in Lansing, arguing that new forms of gaming at the raceways would eat into the casinos’ revenue.

That building may now become a hub for food and entertainment, with plans to possibly lease out half of the building for a microbrewery (production and distribution), and the other half for a restaurant and sports bar.

“We can see it coming to fruition,” Biro said. “If the numbers are sustained with what we’re doing at present, I can see it coming to fruition sooner rather than later.”

In addition to the $300,000 track conversion, the raceway has incurred additional expenses in the form of 30 new hires and a payroll increase of $15,000 a week, Biro said. The track’s $200,000 advertising budget has more than doubled.

But it seems to be paying off: On opening night, revenue was up 15 percent over the average harness night, and around $171,000 was wagered on the nine races. In addition, $300,000 was spent on simulcast races.

The $171,000 is a significant increase from the $64,000 that was the most wagered on live races during the harness meet, which ran for 10 days earlier this year. Weather plays a significant role, however, and may have impacted the meet.

Prior to the return of the thoroughbreds, the historic track had been faced with some troubling numbers. Around $3.3 million was bet on live racing in 2013, a drop from about $4.2 million in 2012. Simulcast wagering also dropped, from $62.8 million in 2012 to $57.3 million in 2013. At tracks across the state, live betting and simulcast betting combined amounted to $126.9 million in 2013, down from $138.1 million in 2012.

“Overall, the trend has been downward,” Biro said. “Simulcast shows the most since we simulcast year-round, whereas live racing is only a portion of the year.” He said he’s very encouraged by the reversal posed by the thoroughbreds. “Going into the meet, there were two very strong weekends, because of the opening and the holiday itself.”

Hazel Park Raceway first had thoroughbred racing when the venue opened in 1949, but it shifted exclusively to harness racing in 1984. The decision to bring it back was made by the Michigan Gaming Control Board (MGCB) on Jan. 21. The decision also applies to the track at Northville Downs, which has featured harness racing since it opened in 1944.

The MGCB’s decision followed a five-year deal reached between The Michigan Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association (HBPA), and the two raceways late last year. The deal aims to permanently restore thoroughbred racing.

Talk of bringing back the historic sport began in late 2010, with the closure of Pinnacle Race Course in southern Detroit, once a hotspot for thoroughbred racing. Since then, thoroughbred races have taken place at Mount Pleasant Meadows, a mixed-breed venue in rural central Michigan.

Now thoroughbreds are back in metro Detroit, and the excitement has been palpable, creating a festival-like feel at the track where people seem to enjoy the energy of the crowd as much as the spectacle of the race.

Hazel Park City Councilman Andy LeCureaux said he’s happy to see the turnaround. In the long-run, however, he wants the state to allow the track to incorporate other forms of gaming, so the track can stay competitive in a landscape dominated by casinos.

“If we could get legislation through the state (for other gaming options at the track), we’d probably have a 300-room hotel built on the property,” LeCureaux said. “It would provide more options for patrons, and the state should allow it since it’s a source of new revenue and job growth. But they’re keeping it away. It smells of special interests.”

In the meantime, LeCureaux said Hazel Park Raceway has plenty to offer.

“The renewed interest is a sign of people looking for new kinds of entertainment, and this is a great way to be outdoors and get just that,” LeCureaux said. “Plus, it’s fairly inexpensive entertainment. It would cost so much more to go to a concert, for example. You don’t have to spend much on gambling or food.”

And the track’s success is vital to that of the city. After the patrons receive their cut of the winning bets, the rest is divided up amongst the horsemen, their associations, the track, the state and the city of Hazel Park.

“It’s one of the pieces of the puzzle for the comeback of the city of Hazel Park,” LeCureaux said.

The thoroughbreds race at 7:30 p.m. every Friday and Saturday at Hazel Park Raceway, 1650 E. 10 Mile, at the corner of Dequindre, from now through Oct. 11. Parking and admission are free. Dining is available in the clubhouse. Concessions are $1 on Fridays; 16-ounce draft beers cost $2. For more information, call (248) 398-1000.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Andy Kozlowski at akozlowski@candgnews.com or at (586)279-1104.