By Ernie Birchmeier
The most famous five-word phrase in horse racing: Down the stretch they come!
Every spring millions tune in as a new crop of Thoroughbreds battle it out in the Kentucky Derby with aspirations of winning the Triple Crown. Horse-racing enthusiasts watch as the world’s finest four-legged athletes battle head to head and stride for stride. Horse racing is alive and well, and believe me is it ever exciting!
Well, it’s alive and well in Kentucky at least—not so much anymore here in Michigan.
Horse tracks used to be prevalent and thriving in Michigan. You could barely find a place to stand as some of America’s best Standardbreds and Thoroughbreds took to half a dozen in-state tracks and gave racing enthusiasts (and wagering enthusiasts!) night after night of excitement and entertainment.
But no more.
Horse racing was the only game in town when it came to wagering, but with the rise of casinos, racing in Michigan slowly began to fade. As more glitzy, fast-paced gambling options were legalized, it became obvious people preferred blackjack and slot machines over waiting between races to place their next wager.
Our horse-racing industry tried to capitalize on this by adding casino-style gaming, but the state’s Native American community fought back hard. In 2004, Michigan voters approved Proposal 1, limiting the growth of casino expansion to those operated by Native American Tribes. That ballot proposal hindered Michigan horse racing and it’s been declining ever since—a once-thriving industry, now virtually eliminated.
Some components of that big-picture decline are more visible than others. Horse racing facilities closed in Hazel Park, Jackson, Mt. Pleasant and Muskegon. Northville Downs is still afloat, and the future of Sports Creek near Flint remains uncertain.
Once a mainstay of many county fairs, even harness racing has dwindled dramatically.
Horse owners and enthusiasts are still trying to revive the industry. A recent ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court allows states to allow and regulate online wagering. Some states allow advanced-deposit wagering; others permit various other forms. Michigan race-horse owners would like to see these options enacted here.
Michigan Farm Bureau policy supports efforts encouraging economic growth and strengthening Michigan horse racing.
Submit your responses to [email protected] or mail to MFB Community Group Discussion, ATTN: Michelle Joseph, 7373 W. Saginaw Hwy., Lansing, MI 48909.
A lifelong farmer in his own right, Ernie Birchmeier has served his fellow Michigan farmers for 30 years on staff at Michigan Farm Bureau. He started as a regional representative in the Northeast and West regions; managed the Young Farmer department; served as livestock and dairy specialist; and now manages the Center for Commodity Farm and Industry Relations.