The community groups responding to our August discussion topic on Michigan’s beleaguered horse-racing sector reflect a resignation that this unique component of Michigan agriculture is unlikely to see any kind of resurgence anytime soon. Judging by the tone and content of the comments we received from groups in Osceola, Saginaw and Huron counties, it sounds like the final nails have been driven home in the coffin of our once prosperous horse-racing industry.
Echoing that was Kent County’s Scott Edwards, who isn’t in a community group (yet) but happened upon our newsletter and took the time to share his thoughts and personal experience as a veteran once deeply involved in the industry.
“Realistically it’s too late to do much to revive the industry. Top breeders have either left the state or closed the breeding sheds. Trainers and drivers have relocated to neighboring states,” Edwards said. “I know I wouldn’t start breeding, training and buying horses again. To get things back to a level playing field with surrounding states would take years.
“That horse has already left the barn. The horses left in Michigan are not top quality. If you can’t put on a good show with quality horses and the best drivers, don’t waste your time. All the top trainers and drivers have fled for greener pastures.”
Edwards first caught the equine bug in the mid- ‘80s, when Muskegon’s race track opened. He bought his first horse in 1986, and even though its first purses were more like slim billfolds, Edwards was hooked. Listening to him recall those early days, it’s clear the excitement of the sport is real and still percolates in his heart.
“Michigan horse racing used to be really good back in the 1980s and early ‘90s,” he said, but its rapid decline thereafter sent him to Canada, where fat purses made for a lively race sector. “We were racing for up to $20,000 a week there. Even if you finished in the top five you were good.”
From there his interest turned to Ohio and Indiana, where supportive legislation fostered a vigorous horse-racing industry.
“Same story in Minnesota, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey,” he said. “And where’s Michigan?
“Dead. It didn’t have to go this way here,” he added with a hint of sadness in his voice.
Edwards retired in 2012 and now lives near Alto on a 65-acre horse farm with his wife and fewer than half of the 27 horses he once owned.
One of them is Joey, “a true war horse” who won more than 40 races in his career. Now 15, Joey leads a pampered existence with his mom, Cash, and several other veterans from Edwards’ racing heyday.
“You’re not supposed to get emotionally attached to your horses — they’re a business commodity — but I’m looking at Joey right now out my window and thinking, ‘He worked hard for me.’
“Now it’s time for him to take it easy and I’m going to work hard for him.”
Here's how some of our Community Groups chimed in on the topic:
QUESTION #1: Reviving Michigan’s horse-racing industry remains an uphill battle. Where should it rank on the Farm Bureau’s list of priorities, and why?
QUESTION #2: Beyond the racing facilities themselves, what other components of Michigan agriculture are likely feeling the pinch of an equine industry in decline?
QUESTION #3: Thousands of your fellow Farm Bureau members raise, breed, board, train and race horses. What beneficial services should their annual dues entitle them to?
QUESTION #4: How might Farm Bureau work toward promoting and renewing interest in the uniquely exciting experience of watching-and wagering on-horse racing?