After 30 years in exile, thoroughbred racing returns to Hazel Park

Video by Steve Lloyd

Dave Mesrey
Motor City Muckraker

HAZEL PARK, Mich. — Thoroughbred racing made a triumphant return to Hazel Park Raceway Friday night for the first time since 1984. Under sunny skies and temperatures in the upper 70s, an estimated crowd of 10,000 people turned out to see nine action-packed races at the corner of 10 Mile and Dequindre.

Horse
Oak Park native Mike Holmes, with trainer Don Evans, aboard Air It Out in the winner’s circle Friday night.

Hazel Park, which opened on the site of an old landfill in 1949, had been used exclusively for harness racing for the last 30 years. But because of dwindling attendance and stiff competition from local casinos, the track is betting that the move back to thoroughbred racing will help it stave off extinction.

If Friday night was any indication, they’re well on their way.

Oak Park native Mike Holmes, racing at Hazel Park for the first time in his career, went wire-to-wire in the first race aboard Terrie Kisielewski’s 4-year-old colt Air It Out.

“I don’t know what to say!” said an ecstatic Holmes outside the jockeys room afterward. “I’m speechless.”

Kisielewski, watching from the grandstand, was equally excited.

“It feels wonderful! she said. “I’m so excited!”

Among the crowd crammed into the grandstand was photographer Rick DeLorme, 64, who worked as a hot-walker here in the mid-1960s. Friday night, the Lapeer resident was back at the track for the first time in nearly 50 years.

Hazel Park Raceway postcard
Hazel Park Raceway postcard

“It’s nice to see it the way I remember it,” he said.

“We used to come here around 5 o’clock in the morning, walk the horses, take them out for training. I got into a little bit of grooming and stall cleaning. And I’d give them some sweet feed; I think it was molasses and oats. It was quite an education.”

Hot-walkers had to be at least 18 in those days. And although DeLorme was only 16, he managed to talk his way into a job.

“I had to lie about my age,” he said.

While there were plenty of veteran horseplayers on hand Friday night, there were some rookies in the crowd, as well.

Steve Lofman of Ferndale had some beginner’s luck, winning two races, including the first with Air It Out. “First time I ever bet on a horse,” he said.

Original grandstand at the Hazel Park Raceway, via state of Michigan
Original grandstand at the Hazel Park Raceway, via state of Michigan

Mike Ross, of Pleasant Ridge, made the trek with his wife, Christina.

“One of our first dates was here at the track,” Ross said. “But that was for the harnesses. This is our first time seeing the ponies.”

Nebraska native and Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg, who won the 1987 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes with Alysheba, was back at Hazel Park for the first time in decades Friday night.

“I always thought it was a great thoroughbred track,” he said. “I always loved Hazel Park. I was here till the time they closed it.”

At the end of the night, Van Berg, who now makes his home in Arkansas, addressed fans over the P.A.

“It’s great to be back in the state of Michigan,” he said. “And I mean that from the bottom of my heart.”

Last winter in a controversial move, Hazel Park decided to switch from harness racing back to thoroughbreds, leaving many in the harness industry on the outside looking in. And while Friday was indeed a banner night for the track, Hazel Park still faces an uphill battle in its comeback attempt, partly because of fierce competition from legal racinos in nearby Ohio and Indiana.

Its financial struggles in recent years are part of a decades-long decline in Michigan horse racing, which has been stymied by the state’s powerful casino industry. The track also faces the challenge of attracting a younger demographic, as its typical weeknight simulcast crowd is made up of mostly senior citizens. Still, where other Michigan thoroughbred tracks such as Pinnacle Race Course and Great Lakes Downs have failed in recent years, Hazel Park is hoping to learn from their mistakes.

“For one thing, I think we’re better positioned geographically,” said general manager Mike Stommen. “Half their market wasn’t there. They just didn’t have the population base that we do. We have a history of horse racing here that neither Pinnacle nor Great Lakes did. We have a core group here, and we’re not starting from zero like they did.”

It was a family reunion for a lot of Michigan horsemen and horsewomen Friday night, including former jockey Jeannie Maxwell, one of Hazel Park’s first female jockeys in the 1970s.

“It’s just awesome to come back and see all my friends,” she said. “It gives me goose bumps; it really does. I just hope it keeps up like this.”

Dave Mesrey

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.”