It’s finally happening right in front of us — Michigan horse racing is being euthanized right on the track.
Track? Well, yes, there is one left — at Northville Downs, where the trotters and pacers are still performing, but now even that facility is being sold for housing development. Within a year or two, standardbred racing will be expunged just as its thoroughbred counterparts were garroted in their stalls at Hazel Park Raceway just last week.
It will be a death blow to a key element of Michigan’s equine industry, which has existed for more than four decades, employing 12,000 people with an economic impact of some $400 million. A Michigan-bred horse, Bass Clef, finished in the money in the 1961 Kentucky Derby.
Why has this happened? Because of the state-run Lottery and more than two dozen casinos, most of them Native American but three in Detroit, which have sucked the state’s wagering dollars dry with a form of gambling that is guaranteed to bilk bettors, with “house odds” stacked against those who are foolish enough to participate. Michigan government knows this — we’re one of only four states that sell Lottery tickets online, so that the citizenry, disproportionately low-income, can be fleeced to the max.
None of these advantages is available to what horse racing depends on— pari-mutuel wagering, where the bettors themselves, not “The House,” determine what the odds will be in a given race, and where it’s been scientifically proven that skill and hard work can produce guaranteed long-term payoffs.
The only hope for horse racing’s recovery — and it’s a slim one— is a bill passed by the state House of Representatives in 2017 but languishing on the floor of the state Senate without a vote for nearly a year, HB 4611. It would allow the state’s Gaming Control Board to authorize Advance Deposit Wagering (ADW), which might yield as much as $100 million annually in gross wagering for the equine industry and bring it out of the shadows of the Internet, where it’s currently flourishing without any state action but also without any revenue for the state or horse tracks, owners and breeders. We’re talking about online pari-mutuel wagering on horse races, an activity legal in more than 20 other states but not in Michigan, where casino lobbyists and their blood-sucking flacks have stifled any competition.
Guess what? Casinos would like online gambling, too, and therein might lie some hope for HB 4611. If passed and signed into law by Gov. Rick Snyder, who has been MIA on the equine industry during his entire eight-year tenure, HB 4611 could normalize online gambling so that the casinos, the Lottery and horse racing could co-exist with some chance for those devoted to the animals. In other words, if the Lottery/casino rip-off artists could set aside their petty differences in order to get a piece of the online gambling pie, it might just benefit everyone. There are bills on the floor of the House (HB 4926, 4927 and 4928) and Senate (SB 203 and SB 204) that could legalize ADW for the casinos, too.
There ARE a few quasi-hero legislators who have been trying vainly to save horse racing for the past couple of years — state Rep. Dan Lauwers (R-Brockway), the House Republican Floor Leader; state Senator Dave Robertson (R-Grand Blanc); and state Senator Joe Hune (R-Hamburg Twp), but they have been working against heavy resistance rooted in ignorance, sloth, and greed. Snyder and his predecessor, Jennifer Granholm, turned their backs on racing and emasculated its government protectorate. A key Snyder aide, former Lt. Gov. Dick Posthumus, once dismissed horse racing as “going the way of the buggy whip” and rejected any attempt to help it.
Elsewhere in the nation and throughout the world, horse racing will never die. The Pegasus World Cup in Florida boasts $12 million in purse money. In the United Arab Emirates, the winner of the Dubai Derby won $2 million just last month, and guess what? — it’s illegal to even BET on horse racing in the UAR.
A century from now, we’ll all be gone, but the horses will still be here — except in Michigan.