Motor City Muckraker
HAZEL PARK, Mich. — After 62 years, live harness racing came to a close Saturday night at Hazel Park Raceway. The track, in an effort to increase its dwindling revenue, plans to return to thoroughbred racing next month for the first time since 1984.
On a cold, gray, Kentucky Derby day, an estimated crowd of 9,000 filed into the old track one last time to wager on standardbred pacers and trotters.
Most did not come to see the harnesses, however. They came mainly to place their simulcast bets on the 140th Run for the Roses, many bedecked in their Derby finest. As the doors to the track opened at 9:30 a.m., a crowd of 70 people were lined up waiting to get in.
But as the day wound down and the crowd thinned out, many were still unaware it was the end of an era.
“I’m excited to see the thoroughbreds come back,” said longtime patron Ted Piechota of Berkley. “But I’m bummed to see the trotters go.”
Hazel Park’s financial struggle is part of a decades-long decline in Michigan horse racing, dwarfed by casinos and other forms of gambling. In the past decade, Michigan has lost at least four tracks: Jackson Harness Raceway, Saginaw Harness Raceway, Great Lakes Downs in Muskegon and Pinnacle Race Course in Huron Township.
Michigan has just four remaining: Hazel Park Raceway, Northville Downs, Sports Creek Raceway in Swartz Creek and Mount Pleasant Meadows, which has closed at least temporarily.
Hazel Park, which opened as a thoroughbred track in 1949 on the site of a former garbage dump, hosted its first harness meet in 1953.
After Saturday night’s finale, many of Hazel Park’s harness drivers and grooms will now ship out of town, some to Ohio, others to Illinois, likely never to return to the corner of 10 Mile and Dequindre.
Driver Skip De Mull, who first raced at Hazel Park in 1975, doesn’t know where he’s going next.
“At 56,” he says, “it’s hard to find a job that pays anything.”
Ronnie Wrenn Jr., the winningest driver in North America last year, won six of 12 races Saturday night. On Friday, he won eight of 11. Wrenn, a Michigan native, will now head to Ohio, where the harness industry has a much brighter future, thanks to favorable legislation there.
Driver Jason Merriman, 27, would rather stay in Michigan near his family, but if he wants to continue racing standardbreds he’ll have to leave the state.
“The thoroughbreds failed at Pinnacle (Race Course),” he said. “What makes them think it’ll work here?”
Keith Crawford, a 67-year-old leading driver at Hazel Park for more than three decades, plans to continue racing, likely in Illinois and Ohio.
Wrenn, 27, had a stellar final weekend at Hazel Park, but De Mull bested him in the 12th and final race with Bold Decision.
“We went out in a blaze of glory!” he said.
From 1953 to 1984, Hazel Park and Livonia-based Detroit Race Course shared hosting duties between harnesses and thoroughbreds. DRC then became a strictly thoroughbred track, while Hazel Park became a harnesses-only track. DRC closed in 1998.
This week, Hazel Park begins an estimated $250,000 transformation back to a thoroughbred track, replacing the limestone base with a sandy loam surface. Live thoroughbred racing returns on Friday, June 27.
Dave Mesrey is a veteran copy editor who’s worked for the Metro Times, Hour Detroit, and ESPN’s Grantland.com. The editor of Willie Horton’s autobiography, “The People’s Champion,” Mesrey was also an associate producer of the 2013 Tiger Stadium documentary “Stealing Home.”