After years of sparring about the best way to split the pot, Michigan's two remaining horse tracks (thoroughbred and harness racing) have found some common ground when it comes to divvying up the money from bets placed on horse races. That consensus, though, hasn't yet reached other parts of the business that owners of both tracks say will be necessary if the industry is going to be relevant in the 21st century — namely, the introduction of electronic wagering. Past efforts didn't bear fruit. And now the tracks — Hazel Park Raceway, which holds thoroughbred races, and Northville Downs, which runs standardbred harness races — find themselves on opposite sides of proposed legislation that initially attempted to resolve the issue. Executives at Northville Downs say the bill as written is a nonstarter, even after a controversial provision that would have allowed some Internet-based wagering at the tracks was stripped from the bill on the Senate floor. In response, Hazel Park Raceway and its affiliated horsemen's group, the Howell-based Michigan Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, say they intend to ask the Michigan Gaming Control Board to pursue online wagering as an administrative rule change, rather than in statute. The practice, known as advance deposit wagering, would allow people to place bets on simulcast races from their cellphones or tablets without having to visit a track. Current law requires anyone betting on horse racing to do so from within a track. Hazel Park and Northville Downs consider online betting on horse races an extension of what they already do, replacing paper with the mobile devices that people carry everywhere. TheMichigan Lottery has introduced online games, which track owners believe is essentially the same thing. And because more than 95 percent of the tracks' wagering revenue comes from people who place bets on simulcast races, rather than live ones, the interest in electronic wagering is also financial. The tracks say they're competing for business against out-of-state mobile wagering sites that don't pay state taxes and don't offer a cut of the proceeds to support either track and their affiliated horse owners' group. Earlier versions of Senate Bill 504, sponsored by state Sen. David Robertson, included a provision that would have allowed the horse track with the larger handle during the past five years to operate advance deposit wagering. By numbers alone, Hazel Park had the larger simulcast handle — $56.6 million in 2015, compared to $45 million for Northville Downs, according to Michigan Gaming Control Board figures. "I would have had to take everybody to court," said Mike Carlo, Northville Downs' operations manager. "That was the biggest slap in the face I've ever seen in this industry. "In our world, we live under the purview of our license," he added. "Basically, what it would have done is it would have said that Hazel Park has a different license to operate pari-mutuel wagering in a manner that Northville Downs can't." The bill that passed the Senate does not include that language. Instead, it would allow Michigan's racing commissioner to draft administrative rules to govern the practice. The Michigan Gaming Control Board, which regulates the horse industry along with Detroit's three commercial casinos, opposed the earlier version of the bill. Robertson, R-Grand Blanc Township, said the board and harness racing groups wanted the language removed. A 2004 amendment to the Michigan Constitution requires a statewide vote for any expansion of gaming. The board has not yet publicly said whether it would consider authorizing advance deposit wagering. Robertson, track owners and horsemen's groups all say they don't believe the practice would violate the constitutional provision. "The (board) will have to see what the options and its authority are if the bill becomes law," gaming board spokeswoman Mary Kay Bean said via email. The bill could get a hearing in the House agriculture committee this week after clearing the Senate last week in a 30-7 vote. A new formula? Robertson's bill would be the first update to Michigan's 1995 horse racing statute. Among other things, it would rewrite the formula that distributes revenue from wagers. Currently, all wagers placed on simulcast races at Hazel Park and Northville Downs are pooled into a common purse, where it's split between the tracks and horsemen's groups. Track owners say that setup made more sense years ago, when Michigan had more horse tracks in operation. But waning interest in horse racing led to the closure of seven tracks since 1998, leaving just two tracks. Hazel Park and Northville Downs essentially compete for the same audience, despite the fact that they don't race the same breeds of horses, and have lost money as the wagering pool decreased. Thus, competition for market share has become increasingly important. Today, the common purse is divided in a way that offers roughly 65 percent of the proceeds to the harness racing standardbreds, after winners and a 3.5 percent state tax are paid, with the rest going to the thoroughbreds. Robertson's bill would eliminate the common purse in favor of a "site-specific" model, meaning all of the wagers placed at Northville Downs and Hazel Park would stay at the respective tracks. "Horse racing has had very tough times. It's been diminishing as a sport, and this is an attempt to try to amend the law in a way that will help all of racing," Robertson said. "This language is archaic." Northville Downs agreed to the funding formula change, which ultimately is a concession that would award them a smaller share of the simulcast purse pool than they receive now. But Carlo and the Michigan Harness Horsemen's Association say the change triggers a problem with a different section of the bill, which they believe would require Hazel Park's owners to sign off each time Northville Downs wanted to simulcast a thoroughbred horse race. Their fear is that Hazel Park and thoroughbred groups could block Northville Downs from simulcasting the Kentucky Derby, for instance, since the money collected under the new model would not be shared with Hazel Park and thoroughbred owners. "Since the dawn of simulcasting, all tracks have taken all breeds," said Tom Barrett, president of the harness horsemen's group. "We are only going to support a bill that treats both tracks the same." George Kutlenios, president of the thoroughbred horsemen's association, said his group doesn't intend to prevent Northville Downs from showing thoroughbred races. "I don't know why we would not want to send a signal," Kutlenios said. "The more signals, the more product you have to offer. I can't even envision a scenario where that makes sense." Simulcast dollars The fight over simulcast revenue in some ways explains the desire for advance deposit wagering. Simulcast wagers contributed $3.6 million in state tax revenue last year, a drop of 9 percent from 2014, according to the gaming control board. And the roughly $106 million wagered on live and simulcast races last year is well below the $261 million bet in 2007. Kutlenios said he has heard some industry estimates peg the amount wagered illegally in Michigan through services in other states at between $90 million and $120 million. Robertson also sponsored Senate Bill 505, which would make it a felony to accept wagers on live or simulcast horse races in Michigan without a license. That bill also moved to the House. Proponents say they want to stop vendors like TwinSpires, which is owned by Churchill Downs, from taking unlicensed wagers from potential track visitors that otherwise could be used to support Michigan's race tracks. "There are people right now on site using their phones but not wagering even through us," said Dan Adkins, vice president of Southfield-based real estate developer Hartman and Tyner Inc., which owns Hazel Park Raceway. Carlo, of Northville Downs, said Michigan's horse tracks could make inroads into the market for advance deposit wagering if a third-party vendor managed it on behalf of both tracks, rather than allowing one track to operate at the expense of the other. "We're in favor of it being in place somehow and some way," he said, "but I don't think we have figured out the best way for our industry in Michigan." By Lindsay Vanhulle Reprinted with permission of the Crain's Detroit site
Undefeated pacing filly Kayla Grace made her sophomore debut on Saturday night at Michigan's Northville Downs and earned her 13th consecutive victory. Kayla Grace ($2.80) opened the evening's harness racing card with an eight and three-quarter length triumph in 1:57.4. Brad Kramer sent the Hes All That-A Maze Of Grace filly wire-to-wire for trainer Marie St. Charles. She is owned by Ed and Cheryl Sayfie's E C S Racing LLC and Kevin St. Charles. To read the rest of the story click here.
Okemos, MI --- The Michigan Gaming Control Board released orders on Tuesday (Jan. 21) dramatically reducing the harness racing schedule at Northville Downs and Hazel Park Raceway in 2014. The orders, which are being appealed by the Michigan Harness Horsemen's Association, authorize ten day harness meets at both Northville and Hazel Park. Those schedules represent a dramatic reduction from the harness dates previously anticipated. Needless to say, the MGCB decision to accept the tracks’ amended applications will have a devastating impact on Michigan’s Standardbred race horse industry. Even more devastating than the slashing of race dates is the timing of the schedule authorized for Northville Downs. Instead of beginning their meet Jan. 31, as originally announced, Northville intends to race Fridays and Saturdays from March 7 through April 5. Hazel Park intends to race their harness meet on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays from April 12 through May 3. According to Tuesday’s orders, both facilities will then convert to Thoroughbred tracks. Despite Northville’s assertion that higher handle and lower track maintenance costs are the reason for their delayed start date, many believe that their strategy is to create as much disruption as possible for the Standardbred industry. Why you ask? Delaying the availability of purse money until March will force more harness horsemen out of business and accelerate the decline of live racing -- something Northville has stated publicly they would prefer. The MHHA and the race tracks have been at odds over track demands that horsemen pay entry fees for the privilege of racing at their facilities. It’s the tracks’ position that, because they are losing money, they are entitled to a greater share of simulcast purse pool revenue. Since the tracks already retain sixty percent of simulcast purse pool commissions, and their “solution” does nothing to solve the industry’s core problems, the MHHA has refused those demands. The financial situation of our horsemen, who collectively lost well over $1 million in 2013, is more dire than the tracks’, so shoring up their bottom lines on the backs of our horsemen is not a reasonable solution. Further, the MHHA believes that, by law, the horsemen’s share of the simulcast purse pool can only be used for purses. While the Thoroughbred horsemen believe they have found a way to circumvent that 1995 Racing Law requirement, the courts may ultimately have to decide if they will be able to do so moving forward. Recognizing the immediate impact that this MGCB decision would have on Michigan’s Standardbred industry, an emergency meeting of the MHHA Board of Directors was held late Friday. In an effort to mitigate the potential damage to our horsemen, the MHHA offered Northville Downs $100,000 in non-simulcast purse pool funds if they would agree to race their original 26 day schedule. That offer was ignored. We are horrified by the MGCB’s decision and have expressed our concerns about both the moral and legal implications of Tuesday’s orders. Time will tell if the tracks’ apparent strategy to wrestle complete control of the industry away from the horsemen will succeed, but there is no question that the short term impact will be harmful to thousands of horsemen -- not to mention countless local agricultural economies around the state. In fact, just since the MGCB orders were released, we have received word that dozens of horses are already being culled from Standardbred stables across the state. We ask all horsemen to be patient as the MHHA moves forward with its appeal of Tuesday’s orders and considers what further actions might be possible to try and mitigate the damage to our 2014 racing season. In the meantime, we encourage you to contact your representatives in Lansing. Make sure they understand what is happening in our industry and let them know how it impacts you and those with whom you do business. If the tracks believe they can force the Standarbred horsemen out of business in what appears to be an attempt to eliminate live racing here in Michigan, they should be prepared for a significant fight. Submitted by the Michigan Harness Horsemen's Association
We are visiting today with the recently crowned leading dash-winning driver in North America Ronnie Wrenn Jr. This past year Ronnie tallied 714 winning drives, which ranked him as the the winningest driver in North America. His UDRS driving rating was an outstanding 0.361. He was the leading driver at both the Northville and Northfield meets. Wrenn, who turned 27 in August has been driving regularly only for four years. Ronnie has been in the sulky for most of Anvil Raider N 23 victories on the year, the most in harness racing in 2013. Wrenn was a finalist for the Dan Patch Human and Horse Awards for 2013 as the Rising Star. We caught up with him as he was driving to be with his girlfriend to bring in the new year together. One-On-One is done exclusively for Harnesslink.com by Brian McEvoy HLINK: Congratulations on a great year of racing and winning the 2013 North American dash title. What are you up to? When is the surgery scheduled on your wrist? RW: I just finished my last day of racing for the year. I finished up with 5 winners on the night. It has been a lot of work for the year. I have definitely raced a lot of races. It has been hard. Winning the title has not set in yet. When I have the time off I will realize what I have accomplished. To be included in the same class of the top 5 drivers is pretty sweet. I am having surgery on January 6th at Ohio State U. Once the surgery is done. I should have about 4 weeks of rehab. I should be back racing in late January or early February. It is just about the time the purse increase should start at Northfield. It's my right wrist and it is an old sports injury that I have put off for years and now have to deal with. HLINK: You have raced at an incredible amount of tracks this year, Northfield Park, Northville Downs, Raceway Park, Scioto Downs, Batavia Downs, Buffalo Raceway, Colonial Downs, Monticello Raceway, Delaware Ohio Fair, Hazel Park, The Meadows, and several other fair tracks. You must have put a lot of miles on your car? RW: I have 148,000 miles on a 2011. Of that I have put 70,000 miles on the vehicle this year. HLINK: You only started driving about four years ago. Tell us about how you started driving and the influence of your uncle Peter. RW: The first year I just messed around driving a couple of horses The last two years is when I picked up catch drives. My two uncles have had a great influence on me. Peter has helped me from a driving aspect. My uncle Gary, a blacksmith, also has helped me greatly. I have talked a lot on the phone with both my uncles for advice. I was going to school in Michigan. I was studying criminal law. I started picking up a lot of drives. It was getting busy, so I chose this path. HLINK: I heard you were a pretty good ball player. How good were you? RW: I played football and baseball in high school. I played some baseball in college. I played center field. I loved the sport. I gave it up to go into the horses. I wasn't going to the major leagues, but I could have played further in college. HLINK: You grew up in Michigan. You started your driving career at the Michigan tracks, and at Windsor in Canada. It must be depressing to watch the decline of harness racing in your home state? RW: When I first started racing all I wanted to do was race at the premier tracks of Michigan. I was hoping to remain racing there. I was for about a year. It looks now like it is near the end of it. Ten live days of racing at Northville and Hazel doesn't add up to a lot of days. If you are a horseman you can't make a living racing there. It was really sad that Michigan didn't approve casinos at the racetracks as just happened in Ohio. I think it is about to come to the end. HLINK: You recently drove Anvil Raider N to his 22nd victory on the year. This is the most racing wins in harness racing for 2013. It might also have been his swan song. U.S. Trotting Association rules require the 14-year-old to retire on December 31st. RW: It was one of the first horses I started to catch drive. I probably drove him the most the last two years. I drove him a lot this year. For him to set the record for most wins this year is pretty neat. It is unfortunate he has to retire as he is still racing like he is a 6-year-old. He has had a lot of miles on his body. It is just like athletes. You can perform better at twenty then in your forties. It is probably a good rule. He is one the few horses I have ever been around that has raced so well in his 14th year of racing. He was racing at a level where he could still hold his speed. He was sharper this year then he has been in the last 5 years. HLINK: You were recently invited for a drive-off at Monticello Raceway against Bruce Aldrich Jr. on December 12th. Tell us about that experience? RW: I loved the idea of what John Manzi came up with in the drive-off. I think a lot of other tracks should try this. I must have got over 200 texts that day My Facebook page and phone were lit up. The first 8 races we went back and forth. The next couple of races didn't work out for me. I had a couple of horses break stride. It is never fun losing but it was a very cool experience. I would definitely do it again. HLINK: When you come back to racing next year after the surgery is Northfield going to be your home base for racing? RW: When I return I will start driving back at Northfield. I love that place and they treat me good. It fits my driving style. On a half mile track you have to be more aggressive. Northfield is a real run and gun track. You don't really go slow quarters as you do at other tracks. I might go down to Lebanon to drive at Miami Valley a little bit when they open in February. I am just going to see how things go. I am considering driving at the Meadows again pulling doubleheaders. It just depends what the purse structure is at Northfield. It would be nice to one day be driving at the premier tracks back east. I want to keep getting better and one day drive on the big stage. I am still learning a lot and new to the business. HLINK: Do you have any insight into when the purses will go up at Northfield?. What about Miami Valley not having any tellers for people to bet with? RW: I probably don't want to say too much as I am not 100%. I guess February is when the purses will be going up a little bit. They have to generate some revenue from the casino. Miami Valley opens in February and I would think they would kick up their purses at the same time. That would prevent the horseman from going on down to Miami Valley. The teller situation I don't think has been worked out yet. I don't think they have a contract with any of the tracks. I hope whoever is working for us gets that worked out. I hope we can race for a lot of money for a long time in Ohio. HLINK: You had an unfortunate situation when you went to race this summer at the Delaware County Fair in Ohio. You were fined for leaning back too far in the bike when driving. You were not happy about the drivers being fined for this. You packed up and left on the first day of racing. RW: When all the drivers showed up the first day they had a whole new set of rules they were trying to enforce. I am really not sure who came up with the rules. I was really looking forward to driving during Jug week. I had a disagreement with the judge. I really didn't think I was leaning back. He thought I was. It is just like in major league baseball where every pitcher and batting has his own form. We are all not robots. We are all individuals which use our skills in different ways. I never have been too far back to control my horse. Maybe when someone just starts driving they should say something. HLINK: Where do you see yourself in five years? Do you see yourself eventually making the move to the Meadowlands and the other big tracks in the northeast? RW: If a trainer called me up and said to come out here and drive my horses. I would come out in a heartbeat. I want to keep getting better. I was locked in this year,driving smarter. I want to be patient and get my horses in the right position at the right time. If I am driving in Ohio that would be fine. Wherever the premier tracks are in the next five years is where I want to be. HLINK: I see on Facebook you are a huge Dallas Cowboy fan? Are you disappointed they did not make the playoffs again this year? RW: I am really disappointed they didn't make the playoffs. I was reading where in the last 20 years they are something like 2 and 18 in week 17. You don't make the playoffs struggling the last game of the season when it means something. I am a diehard fan. When I was younger they were awesome. They were America's team. The last few years they have been a struggling team. I am a Cowboy fan for life. They are like the Yankees of football. By Brian McEvoy for Harnesslink.com
Ronnie Wrenn Jr. topped the Northfield Park 2013 leading harness racing drivers, winning 388 races over the Flying Turns. His nearest competitor, Aaron Merriman, drove 234 winners. Keith Kash Jr. (213), Jason Thompson (196) and Chris Page (193) completed the top five reinsmen. Wrenn, 27, resides in Northfield, Ohio and now has two driving titles under his belt. Ronnie was the leading driver earlier this year when Northville Downs concluded their 2013 meet. This year Ronnie Wrenn Jr. split his time among several different places. Throughout 2013 Wrenn has been a regular at Northfield Park, Northville Downs, Raceway Park and Scioto Downs. He also drove at Batavia Downs, Buffalo Raceway, Colonial Downs, Monticello Raceway and several county fairs. Ronnie's 2013 total victory tally is 714, which ranks him as the winninest driver in North America. David Palone (645), Bruce Aldrich Jr. (639), Corey Callahan (619) and Tim Tetrick (582) complete the top five drivers (by wins) in the continent. Wrenn began driving in 2008 and has won 1,325 races and purses of $4,563,573. Wrenn remembers his first win as being aboard a trotting gelding named Artfull Power at fair in Holland, Michigan. Although there are over 1,300 to choose from, Wrenn says that he has no favorite victory. "It doesn't really matter to me if the race is a $150 per start or an Open," explained Wrenn. "I like the feeling of winning races," Wrenn's richest win ever came in a $42,786 Michigan Sires Stake at Hazel Park. His fastest win was aboard Rockin Finish in 1:50.0. Northfield Park trainer Harla "Renae" Loney won more races than any other Northfield trainer for the second consecutive year. She garnered 122 local victories in 2013. Calvin Hollar finished second with 78 wins. Virgil Morgan Jr. (73), Keith Kash (72) and Nichole Gagnon (69) complete the top five Northfield Park conditioners for 2013. Renae is originally from Martin, Kentucky and has recently relocated to Northfield, Ohio. She has three children: 13 year-old son Gannun, 9 year-old son Payton and 4 year-old daughter Polly. Loney, 38, said horses are in her blood: "My grandpa and dad both had horses and I guess I was just brought up in it." However, before becoming a trainer in 2002, Loney had started another career. Renae is a graduate of Morehead State University, competing in their equestrian program, and became a teacher. She taught elementary school in Floyd County, Kentucky for two years before pursuing her passion of horse racing. Loney has 390 career victories and purse earnings of $790,661. Her favorite horse she has ever cared for is pacing gelding named Bomb Squad. Loney emphasized that she loves horses and loves working with them. Her favorite part of the sport is "getting to the winner's circle." by Ayers Ratliff for Northfield Park
The Michigan Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association has agreed to move Thoroughbred and mixed-breed racing next year to Detroit-area harness tracks Hazel Park Harness Raceway and Northville Downs, making them both permanent Thoroughbred racing sites, pending state approval. The five-year agreement was reached on Dec. 1, a deadline set by the Michigan Gaming Control Board after the tracks earlier this year proposed amendments to their live dates applications to include Thoroughbred and mixed-breed licenses. The contracts have been sent to the board’s office and await approval. The Michigan HBPA has been in talks with both tracks, as well as Flint-area harness venue Sports Creek Raceway, to host Thoroughbred racing since the closure of Pinnacle Race Course in southern Detroit at the end of 2010. Since Pinnacle’s closure, the state’s Thoroughbred meet has been conducted at Mount Pleasant Meadows, a mixed-breed track in rural central Michigan. To read the rest of this story click here.
Ronnie Wrenn Jr never really wanted to follow his family into harness racing. In fact the 26-year-old studied criminal law for three years and it was only in his late teens the Michigan native decided to shadow his Grandfather, Father and Uncles into our great sport.
Harness racing driver Ronnie Wrenn, Jr. had a monster night on Friday (Feb. 22) at Northville Downs as he made 10 trips to the winner's circle on the 14-race card.
A bill aimed at boosting Michigan's horse racing industry will not be signed by Gov. Rick Snyder, who considers the plan likely to be unconstitutional without the approval of voters at statewide and local levels.
There are several bills passed by the Michigan legislature that are still sitting on the governor's desk. One of them may hold the fate of Michigan's horse racing industry.
Michigan's horse racing industry is betting that it can get a boost with a bet on its past. Legislation in Lansing would allow horse track managers to introduce additional and innovative horse race betting games, like wagering on past races. The proposal has passed the House, and is in a Senate committee.
As many of you know, it's been a busy couple of weeks in Lansing and tremendous progress has been made in the fight to save harness racing in Michigan. On Wednesday (April 25), the House Agriculture Committee, chaired by Rep. Kevin Daley, passed HB5546 out of committee and on Thursday (April 26), the Senate Agriculture Committee, chaired by Sen. Joe Hune, passed SB1075 out of committee.
This video depicts a typical early spring night of harness racing at Northville Downs. 'The Downs' has been a fixture in Northville at Seven Mile and Centre Street for decades.
A lot of water has passed under the harness racing bridge since the 1920s when John Boring used to race his fellow milk vendors on their milk routes in Indianapolis in Indiana. Boring used to deliver his milk with a horse and trailer. His horses gradually got faster as he tried to out-deliver his mates. In fact when his standardbreds got so fast he decided to race them.
Michigan harness racing trainer Travis Alexander was all set to follow his late father, Mark's footsteps and become a veterinarian. He even undertook a pre-vet course at College - but at the age of 18 he received news that would change his life forever - doctors had diagnosed him with leukemia.
Each Friday and Saturday night at Northville Downs, one lucky harness racing patron is selected to play one of two exciting games where the contestants can win up to $100,000 in cash. Friday nights are Royal Flush Fridays where contestants choose five cards from a game board and try to match a royal flush for $100,000 or four of a kind worth $25,000, or a full house worth $1,000.