Whether or not the live horse racing season gets off and running at Northville Downs this month remains unclear.
But Mike Carlo, operations manager of the state’s only surviving racetrack, hopes that either way, Michigan horse racing fans will be able to bet the ponies very soon.
In addition to trying to kick off his own live racing season, Carlo is trying to ensure bettors statewide can wager on the first leg of this year’s Triple Crown online through newly regulated advance-deposit wagering.
Carlo told PlayMichigan that Northville Downs is close to agreements with TwinSpires, TVG, Xpressbet, and NYRA Bets to bring online wagering to Michigan in time for the Belmont Stakes on June 20.
As for live harness racing, Carlo said Northville Downs will be ready to go whenever Gov. Gretchen Whitmer gives the go-ahead. The COVID-19 pandemic has already knocked out 24 race dates. The four remaining scheduled dates are in June still in peril.
How we got here and what’s next for ADW in Michigan?
ADW is now allowed in Michigan as part of the expanded gaming laws signed by Whitmer in December.
Last month, the Michigan Gaming Control Board announced third-party facilitators could seek a license to operate betting apps for horse racing in Michigan, which some already do without state regulation.
First, operators need to apply, propose a plan of operation and submit the plan to MCGB Executive Director Richard Kalm, who is also the state’s horse racing commissioner.
Applicants must pay a $1,000 application fee and a $500 license renewal fee to the board to cover the costs of background investigations.
Upon licensing, the facilitators must use and communicate pari-mutuel wagers to a pari-mutuel system that meets all Michigan requirements.
‘Big four’ ADW apps could be live in Michigan soon
The leaders of the thoroughbred and harness horsemen’s associations gave Carlo the nod to negotiate the various ADW contracts.
Since the gaming control board gave the go-ahead last month, Carlo said he’s been communicating “non-stop” with the companies. Carlo has experience with the operators, as they have separate agreements with Northville Downs for simulcasting.
“We’re talking to the big four that handle a large majority of the online horse racing business,” Carlo said. “We’re probably going to sign a deal with all of them in the next week.”
Track planning short-term ADW contracts at first
Carlo said they are close to an agreements on each stakeholder’s percentage of online revenue. He said the contracts will likely be for 18 months. This gives all parties a short-term look at the amount of revenue earned.
Carlo said there has been no study that projects revenues from ADW, making the short-term contract a necessity.
“That’s a problem in negotiations we have run into,” Carlo said. “We don’t know, so we’re flying blind. Our hope is, make a short-term deal with everybody, and then be able to say, ‘OK, now we have to make an adjustment because now we have an understanding of the money that’s out there.’”
Then, the race is on for regulatory approval by June 20.
“We’re hoping Gaming Control Board will approve their contracts in short order so that when the Belmont Stakes happens on June 20, whether my building is open or not, we hope that people will be able to bet legally on it,” Carlo said.
COVID-19 has wiped out Northville’s live racing
Northville Downs was ready to open its 2020 live racing slate on March 20, about one week before the pandemic postponed many facets of everyday life.
After four more still-scheduled dates of live racing this month, the track was scheduled to take off for an 11-week summer break. Then, Northville Downs scheduled 24 live racing dates over 12 weekends from Sept. 11 through Nov. 28.
Carlo said he proposed skipping the summer break with the gaming board.
Whitmer issued stay-at-home order through June 12 that closed most public places. Currently, live racing is scheduled Friday night at Northville Downs because of that June 12 expiration.
However, last week, Whitmer lifted sanctions statewide on bars and restaurants. Those properties opened with a 50% capacity on Monday.
Northville Downs was grouped with the state’s three commercial casinos though, which were explicitly not allowed to open Monday.
Carlo says simulcast betting more like a sports bar
Carlo argues that while Northville Downs is closed like the Detroit casinos, most day-to-day business is simulcasting.
That practice is more like a sports bar, Carlo said. Sports bars opened back up Monday in Michigan.
Carlo said he’s sent reopening plans to the governor’s office and Gaming Control Board.
“Though we are governed by the Michigan Gaming Control Board, we are definitely not a casino,” Carlo said. “In fact, 95% of our business happens in a sports bar environment.”
Social distancing measures for live racing, indoor area
Carlo said getting six feet of social distancing for race contestants, workers, and attendees will not be difficult.
The Northville Downs grandstand can hold about 2,000 fans. Carlo said he’s happy to limit that to 25% capacity.
In addition, a 200-person capacity in his dining room, which seats 400, would be satisfactory.
“Because we are 75 years old, I have enough space that I can expand my spaces to accommodate the same amount of players because I’m normally not 50% full anyways,” Carlo said.
Carlo said the facility has undergone a deep cleaning and disinfectant by The Maintenance Managing Group Building Services company in Livonia. Another round is scheduled for this week.
Carlo said he’s been in touch with his 68 furloughed employees about getting back to work when the governor gives the OK.
“I’ve been here 20 years running a company that’s 75 years old,” Carlo said. “And in 75 years, we’ve seen everything happen, except this.”
Northville Downs could benefit from horse racing boon
Horse racing has picked up in popularity while the COVID crisis shut down much of the rest of the sports world.
But still, if Northville Downs picks up live racing this summer, Carlo said it could still benefit, possibly by shifting of its typical Friday and Saturday racing nights.
“There’s a lot going on to the online portion as to where we might fit in,” Carlo said. “We might race a completely different schedule because we may be the only racetrack out there, and everybody would be betting on our signal. That could be a Monday-Tuesday night, we just don’t know yet.”
“Until we can iron that out with (the Gaming Control Board), with our horsemen, with our online providers, those are the questions we’ve been having for three straight weeks.”