And then there was one.
On Thursday, Hazel Park Raceway closed its doors after seven decades of hosting live horse racing in Southeastern Michigan.
“Over the past 25 years, the gaming industry has dramatically changed throughout the country,” read a statement from the racetrack as reported in the Daily Racing Forum. “Clearly, this has had a significant impact on the proud tradition of horseracing throughout Michigan. For nearly 70 years, Hazel Park Raceway has appreciated the hard work and support of both employees and fans, as well as the economic and entertainment value this venue has brought to the community.”
The last man standing – or horse as it were
Hazel Park was the fourth Thoroughbred track to close since 2007 and the eighth since 1998. The closure of the property leaves one remaining Michigan track, Northville Downs.
And while a lack of competition is normally thought of as a good thing, Mike Carlo, operations manager and co-owner of Northville Downs, is anything but happy about the news.
“I’m sad for the industry in that it’s another track we lost,” he said to Crain’s Detroit Business. “It’s never a good day in the industry when a racetrack closes. We need to get the scales balanced so we can compete in the market with the other gaming in the state.”
Northville Downs has been operating in the black for the last three years, and its immediate future continues to look bright with Hazel Parks’ closure. Carlo estimates he will be able to add 30 additional employees to his staff of 69.
Northville Downs, however, isn’t appropriate for Thoroughbred races, leaving a void in the state and horses without a home less than a month before the scheduled opening day.
In 2014, Northville Downs applied for a Thoroughbred meet license. They failed to make the required changes to the track. As a result, it did not meet the Michigan Gaming Control Board requirements. Hazel Park’s closure may reignite Northville Downs’ interest in hosting Thoroughbred meets.
The closure affects employees and horses
George Kutlenios, president of Michigan Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, is championing the displaced horsemen and horses:
“Our focus right now is on the horses and the horsemen right now in Michigan. We’re trying to get in touch with the other racing secretaries in the surrounding states, and hope that they would be accommodating, given the predicament the horsemen in Michigan are in right now with stalls and stall applications. We’re trying to find everybody a place to land until we can sort out some of these details.”
According to Kutlenios, the track is now in the hands of somebody without an interest in horse racing. The news seemed to catch everyone off guard with less than 30 days until opening day.
“We have no place to go,” he said. “The horsemen are scattering right now, so even if we were to find something that just amazingly appeared for us, the horsemen have a business to run. Having them come back would be a tall order. Even if we were to find something, horse supply would certainly be the first issue that would come up. It would be dicey, even if we could find something.”
Kutlenios does not believe there will be a Thoroughbred meet held in Michigan this year. He is not giving up hope, though, and continues to explore the viability of Thoroughbred racing in Michigan.
Balancing the scales
In his statement, Carlo referred to “balancing the scales.” Many in the industry believe the lack of gaming products at tracks is the cause of the decline.
Many things have contributed to the decline including the Michigan Lottery and casinos. They are a much more attractive option for gamblers offering a complete betting experience. Additionally, nearby states opened racinos – tracks with slot machines that are assuming visitors to Michigan’s tracks.
“It’s an indication that horse racing in Michigan has to be treated like racing in Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky,” he said. “We’re trying to keep it viable.”
Currently, visitors to a track are confined to live and simulcast betting. Carlo firmly believes that if slot machines and other forms of wagering are not permitted, Northville Downs will end up following in Hazel Park’s footsteps.
Carlo wants to follow the models set by many other states that permit other forms of gambling on site.
There was a push for years to find support to legalize new betting options at tracks, but the casinos seem to have a more prominent position in the industry and have loudly voiced their opposition.
The declining Michigan horse racing industry
With all the track closures, it is not hard to believe that gambling revenue at horse tracks has been declining for years.
From 2006 to 2016, gambling revenue fell from $22.1 million to just $4.2 million. The number of tracks went from to two in that same time. That is an 81 percent decline in only 10 years.
Before casinos, the lottery, and the internet, Michigan’s horse tracks were the only game in town. During that time revenue peaked at $443.1 million.
Michigan’s horse racing industry might be declining, but the national picture is entirely different. Across the nation, wagers on live and simulcast races are in the billions has been climbing for the last four years.
The numbers don’t lie and certainly indicate changes need to be addressed. For Carlo, the answer is simple:
“I need more product on my building.”
Without it, live horse racing in Michigan may soon be a thing of the past.