Horse Racing Industry Surging Outside Of Michigan Over The Past Month

Posted on April 21, 2020

Though Michigan gamblers can’t currently take part in betting, the COVID-19 pandemic has provided an opportunity for one sport to gain traction, and horse racing is taking advantage.

Crews are socially distanced and most tracks are not operating during the crisis, but active horse racing is getting more exposure these days with most other American sports closed down.

While it is closed during the pandemic, Michigan’s one remaining horse racing venue could see dividends down the road from the mini-boom.

Horse racing boom on television sets, betting sites

With sports fans scouring the globe for content, and sports gamblers looking for action, horse racing has filled some of the void.

The Associated Press is reporting a 206% increase in horse racing viewership on Fox Sports stations and NBC Sports Network during the shutdown of most American sports.

With the increase in newbies, the networks have shifted the tone of broadcasts to a more rudimentary approach.

“Literally within days they had shifted from talking to the fan that knew a lot about the sport to talking to and really educating the audience in ways in which we don’t normally do,” said Kip Levin, CEO of TVG, which does 12 hours of coverage each week with NBC Sports.

Betting sites have followed suit, offering free bets for new sign-ups.

Online sports betting is not yet operational in Michigan though with estimates for a 2021 launch. Even so, betting on horse racing is currently only permitted at the state’s one remaining track.

Michigan’s only horse racetrack temporarily closed

Racetracks such as Belmont Park on Long Island and Oaklawn Park in Arkansas are still open, but the one venue remaining in Michigan is not.

Because of the stay-at-home order from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Northville Downs closed on March 16 – four days before the 2020 season was scheduled to start.

The venue was scheduled to host harness racing on Fridays and Saturdays. If Northville Downs opens and operates racing one day after the current executive order expires on April 30, the racetrack will still lose 12 nights of live racing.

The company has furloughed its employees but has vowed to return when permitted by the governor.

In a letter to employees posted on the track’s website, management noted that “everyone’s job is safe.”

Northville Downs avoided shutdown scare

Earlier this year, there were fears Northville Downs would close because of a planned residential development at its site.

However, in February, it was announced that racing will continue at the track through at least 2024 as the $200 million development stalled.

Hunter Pasteur Homes of Farmington Hills still has the contract on the property, according to Crain’s Detroit Business. Officials hope to resubmit plans to the city of Northville and break ground on the development within the next five years.

An industry barely hanging on

Michigan has had horse racing and pari-mutuel wagering since the 1930s.

But several tracks closed in the years since state voters passed a law in 2004 that kept venues from adding slot machines and opening “racinos” to boost revenue.

According to the annual horse racing report issued last week by the Michigan Gaming Control Board, $62.7 million was wagered at Northville Downs in 2019, netting the state $2.1 million in tax revenue.

Though there is a 3.5% tax on money wagered on simulcast races, live race wagering is not taxed.

The state collected $2.4 million in 2018 from taxes of simulcast races with $419,352 coming from Hazel Park Raceway before it closed in April 2018.

Could thoroughbred horse racing return?

Northville Downs has hosted the state’s only races since Hazel Park closed before its live racing season began two years ago.

There has been movement in trying to reopen Sports Creek Raceway in Swartz Creek to return thoroughbred racing to Michigan.

However, last month, the owner of the racetrack withdrew its license application for racing this year because of a holdup in legislation that could’ve provided a lifeline.

According to MLive, the CEO of AmRace said a lack of clarity about wagering on races that already occurred led to another year without racing in Swartz Creek.

The state’s gaming control board had previously issued a conditional race meeting license and simulcast permit for this year’s racing in October, noting more steps were needed for reopening.

Horse racing amendment could breathe life

Inside the package of bills that legalized Michigan sports gambling in December, Whitmer signed an amendment to permit mobile horse racing betting through advance deposit wagering.

The system would allow bettors to fund their accounts and place bets online or by phone.

The amendment will allow Northville Downs and the Michigan Harness Horsemen’s Association to partner with third parties to enable mobile parimutuel wagering on live and simulcast races.

The gaming control board is reviewing the implementation requirements.

Mary Kay Bean, communications specialist for the regulator, told PlayMichigan in an email Tuesday that the board believes ADW could launch sooner than online sports betting and casino-style online gaming, which are expected in early 2021.

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Matt Schoch

A Michigan native, Matt has worked at newspapers in Michigan, Missouri and the Virgin Islands. A versatile sports reporter, Matt has covered sailing on the Great Lakes, cricket in the Caribbean, high school and pro playoffs, and the Olympics in Rio. He's also the host of the Locked On Pistons Podcast and producer of a documentary on Emoni Bates. A former blackjack dealer, Matt has studied the industry from all sides.

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