Horse Racing, Once Popular In Michigan, Now Struggles For Survival

May 20, 2019

Closure of tracks, a struggling business model and big changes in availability of legalized gambling is hurting trainers and farms in Michigan.

EAST LANSING, Mich. – Horse racing, an activity that’s been around for thousands of years and adored by so many, is now beginning to decline in Michigan.

 

Horse racing is part of the American fabric, brought by British settlers in 1665. During that same year, the first horse track was built in Long Island, New York. In 1868, the first official organized races took place. This was the beginning of a thriving sport that would later turn into a gambling frenzy all across the country.

Fast forward to 2004, and horse racing in Michigan would begin to diminish. Only one track remains in Michigan with live racing – Northville Downs in the Metro Detroit suburbs.

 

But its days are numbered too. This 48-acre track was purchased by housing developer Hunter Pasteur Homes in 2018 and will close in 2021. In a media release, Hunter Pasteur said, “operations at Northville Downs will continue as usual until site development begins.”

The plan is for Northville Downs to relocate, but plans have not been finalized.

Patricia Miller who is a harness racing driver. Taken at now closed Jackson Raceway. Miller won.
Credit Dr. Brian Nielsen

  Michigan made $3.5 million in 2017 from horse racing, by collecting taxes on simulcast wagers, racing fees and licenses. Revenues have been steadily sliding for more than a decade, with the State taking in more than $6 million back then.

“Horse racing, in general, used to be king because it was the only form of legalized gambling. It disappoints me a little bit that it’s tied to gambling. That’s the way it is. It was up there in terms of spectator sports,” said Dr. Brian Nielsen, a professor in the Department of Animal Science at Michigan State University. “Now, we have competition from other sources. It kind of took a dive here when the casinos came on board. The issues with casinos as opposed to horse racing are the casinos allow you to lose your money much faster and people seem to like to do that.”

The turning point for Michigan’s horse racing industry came in 2004, when Proposal 1 passed. The booming casino gaming industry in the state wanted to limit gambling and gaming to only to their businesses. Horse tracks wanted permission to add slot machines to draw more crowds, but casinos didn’t like that.

The law passed, keeping gambling with the casinos. And the horse racing industry has been suffering serious losses since then.

“The big mess started when we had the Detroit casinos come into play. Before Greektown, MGM, and Motor City got up and going, they had to go to a vote. The city had to approve casinos going into the city of Detroit,” said Crystal Terrell, treasurer of the Michigan Harness Horsemen's Association, which is a group serving as the liaison between race tracks and horsemen.

The association helps form agreements on revenue splits between the two groups, make contracts, and decide what the race schedules.

Terrell continued, “This process of approval might have made them feel like it was an unfair process, so they wanted to push a proposal for anyone else trying to establish gaming at their facilities.”

Dr. Brian Nielsen’s office. These are trophies he has won from horse racing.
Credit Dr. Brian Nielsen

  This proposal exempted the Detroit casinos and the tribal casinos.

“It basically said if I’m not a Detroit casino or tribal casino, and I want to have an additional form of gaming at my facility, particularly race tracks, it would have to go to a statewide vote,” said Terrell.

Casinos were on top at this point and would continue to be for years, pushing horse tracks deeper and deeper into the ground.

In 2008, Michigan went through a lot of economic trouble. While the state was trying to save money, it proposed eliminating the Office of the Racing Commissioner (ORC) because it cost between $60,000-70,000 per year to operate. Michigan ended up shutting down the office, rolling it into the Michigan Gaming Control Board to regulate the ORC.

Animal welfare awareness has also impacted the popularity of horse racing. People may have witnessed horses getting hurt, or even getting euthanized, after a race on national television, hurting the reputation of the sport.  A slew of recent racehorse deaths at the Santa Anita (Calif.) race track has called the sport’s safety into question.

 

However, these serious injuries are pretty rare and could simply be an accident, but looking at further research concludes that many of them could be due to steroids. There are two types – anabolic and corticosteroids. Anabolic steroids are the ones that give horses big muscles. Corticosteroids give instant relief to joints. Many humans take these kinds of steroids since they’re anti-inflammatory drugs. The problem is that corticosteroids only take away the pain, but don’t heal the injuries themselves.

This is where a lot of trainers don’t understand the devastating effects that can happen if they don’t properly train their horses. In fact, if horses keep racing while they are injured and on corticosteroids, trainers are diminishing the cartilage cells and in turn delaying healing.

This has become an image people get in their heads, but according to Nielsen, it’s not as common as thought.

“I’ve spent a lot of my life at the track. In the U.S., I only remember a horse breaking down once. It didn’t really break down. I was in the track kitchen so I didn’t see it in person. A horse clipped heels, so it got too close to the horse in front of it and it stepped on the hind feet of it, it stumbled, and the horse broke its neck when it hit the ground. It was dead right there,” said Nielsen. “So, we see these breakdowns occurring. People think it happens so much. It doesn’t.”

 

Nielsen added, “Unlike the casinos where, yes, you have your people that are hired to work in the casinos, horse racing involves agriculture. The fact that you have people who are growing the hay, the grain, the bedding, you have so many people employed.

 

“There were a lot of people that were employed by horse racing who absolutely loved it. We still have those people who are absolutely passionate about it. Most of the people that are involved with it are really good people and they love their horses. They do everything they can to take care of them and to help keep this industry going.”