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February 5, 2014

Thoroughbred horse racing will return to Hazel Park

Historic sport returns this summer after 30-year absence

By Andy Kozlowski
C & G Staff Writer

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Thoroughbred horse racing will return to Hazel Park
Ladd Biro, director of racing at Hazel Park Raceway, stands outside in the grandstand, the snow-covered track behind him. The historic venue at 1650 E. 10 Mile will host a benefit for the Hazel Park Promise Zone, which helps send all Hazel Park High graduates to college, at 5 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 8. The cost is $50 per person and $95 per couple.

HAZEL PARK — When people think of horse racing, they typically think of the Kentucky Derby, where thoroughbred horses hurtle around the track, steered by jockeys leaning forward and hanging on tightly.

Now, after a 30-year hiatus, thoroughbred racing will return to Hazel Park Raceway. Located at the corner of East 10 Mile and Dequindre, the venue will also continue to host harness racing, where a standard-bred horse pulls a two-wheeled cart seating the driver. Simulcast wagering and dining options also continue to be available.

“It like coming full-circle,” said Ladd Biro, director of racing at Hazel Park Raceway. “There are a lot of people who only follow thoroughbreds — it clearly has a lot of priority in people’s minds. It’s just that the racing hasn’t happened here in metro Detroit for quite some time. Now, for the people who like thoroughbred racing exclusively, they’ll have a place to go here to see it in person.”

Hazel Park Raceway featured thoroughbred racing when the venue opened in 1949, but it shifted to harness racing exclusively in 1984. The decision to bring it back this spring 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 follows 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 central rural Michigan.

This latest development puts thoroughbred racing back in Detroit, but it will require more work at Hazel Park Raceway. The venue will host a 10-day harness meet from April 12 to May 3. Then, the track’s 5/8-mile oval will be resurfaced for thoroughbred racing, which requires a softer cushion on the track, since thoroughbreds aren’t as sturdily built as standard-bred horses. The thoroughbred races then run from June 29 to Oct. 11. Most of the races take place on Friday and Saturday nights.

“Not to minimize harness racing, of course — even though it might be a shorter meet, it will provide a lot of top horses during that span,” Biro said. “I expect the purses to be up because of the consolidated race dates, so we’ll have some great horses.”

Hazel Park City Councilmember Michael Webb said he’s thrilled by the news.

“It’s been in the works for a while,” Webb said. “I think this will help spin around the racetrack and show people there’s more entertainment value to be had there, from gaming to dinner and having fun — responsibly, of course.”

He noted that what’s good for the racetrack is good for the city and good for the state; the city receives a portion of the venue’s breakage money, which helps sustain services, and farmers across the state benefit when the racing industry they support is thriving.

Webb raised concern about competition from casinos, though, and practices preventing raceways from offering similar gaming options on their own premises.

“It’s an economic thing, all across the board,” he said.

In the meantime, Webb said that he hopes to see more dates for thoroughbred racing in the future and that the new format will bring people back.

“If you place a bet on horse racing, it won’t cost you the sort of money you’d spend on one hand on a blackjack table. You just wager $2 or $3 on a horse race. It’s having a little fun, gambling responsibly and not spending a lot of money,” Webb said. “We hope the thoroughbreds will be a turnaround for the raceway.”

Hazel Park Raceway is located at 1650 E. 10 Mile, at the corner of Dequindre, and can be reached by calling (248) 398-1000.

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