Michigan horse racing faces troubling future as Northville Downs has had its final race

After 80 years at its current location, the last live harness race was held at Northville Downs on Saturday. A new track in the state is now a long way off – if ever.

by Dave Briggs

Saturday night (Feb. 3) was the last card of live pari-mutuel harness racing for the foreseeable future in Michigan as Northville Downs is now closed and will soon be developed.

This week, the future of the horse racing in Michigan was put into further doubt when Plymouth Township voted unanimously to rescind a motion authorizing construction of a new track on a 128-acre plot of land owned by Northville Downs ownership.

The hope that a new track could be constructed there in the next 12-18 months has now been dashed, leaving horse racing in limbo in Michigan.

Tom Barrett, the president of the Michigan Harness Horsemen’s Association, said the closure of the state’s last remaining pari-mutuel horse racing track “is not a good thing by any stretch.”

“The guys that are still in Michigan are a resilient bunch,” Barrett said. “We will still have our fairly-lucrative summer program with our colt stakes program. It will be at the various fair tracks around the state and most of the horsemen that are still here participate in that. But not having pari-mutuel racing for a good chunk of the year is certainly not a good thing.”

Horse race betting in Michigan is the oldest form of legal gambling in the state, predating lotteries.

And money appears to be at the root of the problem of a new track being built. Barrett said a recent vote to deny the new track concerned Northville Downs ownership balking at Plymouth Township requiring $500,000 per year for 10 years to be provided to the township via a community benefit agreement.

Despite celebrating its 80th anniversary at its current location, customers will no longer be able to place simulcast bets at Northville Downs on horse racing happening elsewhere as of Monday (Feb. 5).

The land will soon be developed as part of a $250 million project to build new homes and commercial space.

Barrett said the development has been in the works for many years. It certainly isn’t a surprise to the horsepeople that depend on the track for their livelihood.

“We knew that this year was going to be limited in terms of racing opportunities,” Barrett said. “We knew that even if Plymouth Township had approved the PUD (Planned Unit Development) it was still going to be, I would guess, nine to 15 months lead time to get [a new track] built.

“But, now that it’s actually happening, it becomes a little bit of a panic situation… It’s one thing to plan for it or to know it’s coming, it’s another to have a date put on it and have to react.”

Breeding, training and racing standardbreds in Michigan goes back to the 19th century.

At one point, Michigan was home to six harness racing tracks. In the last 15 years, three of the remaining four tracks — Jackson, Sports Creek and Hazel Park in Detroit — have all closed. That left Northville as the only pari-mutuel track left. And it contributed to a mass exodus from the state by people that race horses for a living.

Much of the demise of the sport is tied to the fact that, unlike other states and provinces where horse racing is prevalent, Michigan tracks did not receive a cut when gambling expanded to casinos and sports betting. Though the Michigan Agriculture Equine Industry Development Fund does now receive funding from Michigan online gambling tax revenue.

“It’s incredibly disappointing,” Barrett said. “In all of the surrounding states and the province of Ontario the government has supported horse racing. Indiana, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Ontario, all have [gambling] revenue that supplements purses and enhances agriculture in their areas.”

Barrett said the horsepeople still left in Michigan will now have to race in some of those other jurisdictions to stay afloat. With that comes considerable travel and expense.

“A lot of them will have to ship to Cleveland or some other jurisdiction to race,” Barrett said. “Miami Valley [in Ohio] is racing. Some may ship to Toronto… My son and I were just talking about going to Sarnia [just across the border in Ontario to race this summer].

“So there are options, but I’m not going to kid you, not having a pari-mutuel track in Michigan for a period of time is certainly going to be a stressor for our horsemen, having to travel more and spend more to get their horses raced.”

Barrett said he is optimistic a new track will be built and additional gambling could be added to a new track to support horse racing in Michigan.

He said the most likely source would be from Historical Horse Racing machines. These are slot-like machines that allow bettors to wager on random horse races from the past.

HHR machines have been a major success in driving purses and revenue in Kentucky.

“We’ve always been hopeful that it’s a tool we could add,” Barrett said of historical horse racing machines. “And I think the planned track at Plymouth included at least the potential of a facility that would house HHR.”

But first, the owners of Northville Downs have to find a new home.

In the interim, the closure of the state’s last remaining track will put a damper on any 80th anniversary celebrations.