Michigan Harness Horsemen's Association president Brett Boyd told harnessracing.com Wednesday morning that he was "stunned” by the Michigan Gaming Control Board's (MGCB) executive order issued Tuesday that allows Thoroughbred racing to return to Hazel Park Raceway and Northville Downs in 2014 as well as limit the number of Standardbred race dates at each track to just 10.
"Yes, I'm stunned,” said Boyd, who was meeting with MHHA attorneys as well as the board of directors on Wednesday. "Obviously it's a dark day in Michigan racing, but as an association we are not giving up and will continue to look for opportunities to preserve our business. It's a sad day, but when one door closes we have to try and open another one.”
The situation began when there was a breakdown in legislative negotiations between the racetracks and the MHHA over distribution of the state's simulcast money that goes into the purse fund.
After submitting original date applications for all harness meets in 2014, Hazel Park and Northville Downs filed amendments that included both Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds, with the former receiving the majority of dates. Although the MGCB then denied Northville's amended application and did not rule on Hazel Park's, the order given on Tuesday gave both tracks the go-ahead for Thoroughbred racing.
With the executive order, Northville Downs will race 10 days of harness racing in March and April, with Hazel Park racing 10 days of harness racing in late March and early April. The MGCB already approved 11 days of Standardbred racing at Sports Creek in November and December.
Thoroughbred racing will return for a 32-date meet to Hazel Park—a five-eighths mile racetrack which hosted the runners from 1949-84—on Sunday, June 29, with a "Grand Reintroduction" card on Friday, July 4. Hazel Park will then race 7 p.m. programs every Friday and Saturday night through Oct. 11. Northville Downs—a half-mile oval—will open its 16-date Thoroughbred meet on Saturday afternoon, Oct. 18. Post time is tentatively slated for 1 p.m. every Friday and Saturday through Nov. 16.
The MHBPA will repay track conversion costs at both tracks of up to $300,000 each. As a half-mile track that never hosted Thoroughbred racing, Northville Downs will have to undergo some track and facilities conversion. Northville Downs' John Carlo told harnessracing.com earlier that those plans include the demolition of a backstretch garage that will allow the building of a chute for the start of races.
Michigan Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association (MHBPA) president George Kutlenios told harnessracing.com Wednesday morning that the MHBPA will sign a five-year contract agreement with Hazel Park and Northville. The contract includes the stipulation that every owner/trainer pay a $400 entry fee per horse. He also noted Mt. Pleasant Meadows will race a 16-date meet this year and then close permanently since the new contract will call for more Thoroughbred dates in the future, which would likely eliminate all Standardbred racing.
"I beg them to justify or prove to us how their actions were in the best interests of the industry. We raced almost 10 months of the year last year and now you consolidate because of the track's wishes to race Thoroughbreds and pay entry fees? The original order was issued on Nov. 1 and here we are 82 days later and they yank the carpet out from underneath us and take 10 months of racing and consolidate it down to two. How in the world is that in the best interesting of racing and the industry?”
Boyd said the elimination of a racing commissioner several years ago that placed racing under the jurisdiction of the MGCB has played a pivotal role in racing in the state.
"We used to be in the Office of the Racing Commissioner under the Dept. of Agriculture, and then shifted to the Gaming Control Board, and they just don't understand the process,” opined Boyd. "The process had always been that the horsemen state their case at the dates hearing, the tracks state their case in making their applications, and then the Gaming Board is supposed to be the intermediary. In this particular case, they did not operate in the best interests of racing.
"This would have never happened if there was a racing commissioner, who would have never let the tracks power-play the situation. They would have never tolerated this behavior and actions that devastate an industry.”
Boyd said the MHHA board of directors was looking at other options to race more dates in 2014. He also noted the MHHA filed an appeal first thing Wednesday morning with the MGCB and also asked the state's attorney general's office to issue a ruling on the legality of the Thoroughbred horsemen paying entry fees as part of the agreement with Hazel Park and Northville. The MHHA also reportedly offered Northville Downs $100,000 in non-simulcast purse pool funds if they would agree to race their original 26-day schedule, which was turned down.
"They should never have allowed the entry fee thing to happen and now it's snowballed out of control,” said Boyd. "Until we get an opinion from the attorney general that overturns the pay-to-play model that the Thoroughbreds are racing, we're probably going to have to go into business ourselves. We'll have to pick up the pieces and do the best we can.”--by Gordon Waterstone