Racings End Has Economic Ripple

February 2, 2007
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MUSKEGON — After constant losses since 2000, Magna Entertainment Corp. has announced that the 2007 race season will be the last at Great Lakes Downs, causing potential financial loss to related businesses and the agricultural industry.

“We’re very saddened by the news. It’s going to affect so many people — an entire industry,” said Amy MacNeil, general manager of Great Lakes Downs.

MacNeil said with the 2006 season closing at a $1.8 million loss, the company has decided that it can’t continue to lose money year after year, waiting for legislation to allow for other forms of gambling such as off-track betting, online wagering and slots.

“It’s becoming pretty clear that Michigan just isn’t going to allow for that,” she said.

The track has lost money every year since Magna purchased it in 2000, the year after it started thoroughbred racing, MacNeil said.

“We lose money every year and it’s not just a little bit,” she said. “Although the president of Magna Entertainment, Frank Stronach, is very dedicated to the racing industry, we just can’t continue to race in Michigan without the future prospect of making any money.”

MacNeil said the 100 days left of guaranteed racing shows the commitment of the company.

“We made that commitment to the horsemen to run those hundred days and MEC is going to stand by that commitment,” she said. “It gives them a little bit of time to plan for their future.”

Gary Tinkle, executive director of the Michigan Horseman’s Benevolence and Protection Association, said they are going to need that time to determine options for racing in Michigan

“We really don’t know what the future holds at this point in time past ’07,” he said.

Tinkle said loss of racing at the track would be a loss not only to the patrons of the track, the horsemen and the 80 horses a day that race there, but also to the agriculture industry in the area that supplies the hay, straw and feed and the area businesses that serve the horsemen and their staff. Tinkle, who lives in Holland, said he is one of many renting apartments in the area during the racing season.

Tinkle blames the lack of success on the inability to expand gaming at the track.

“The reason we’re at where we are is because Michigan allows monopolies to take place in respect to gaming,” he said. “Racing was the original and it has not been able to expand and compete with the new products. If you can’t compete fairly for the gaming dollar, this is going to happen.”

Without state approval to expand, the tracks cannot allow other forms of gaming such as those offered by the casinos around the state, leaving the track behind, Tinkle said.

“It’s been kind of a kick in the guts, obviously; we’re just trying to see what the options are,” he said. “We want to stay alive and put this year’s meets on and do the best we can to be here next year.”

With the many horses that come through the track, Mark Arends, president of the Muskegon County Farm Bureau, said local suppliers of hay and straw may be hurting for customers following the end of racing.

“There’s a lot of hay and a lot of straw that they use for bedding,” he said. “It’s fairly significant. A lot of it comes from farmers in the Ravenna, Casnovia area.”

Arends said the farmers may have the opportunity to make up for the loss by switching crops, considering the rising price of corn, but he is concerned about the Muskegon County Fairgrounds, which are used as a housing and training area for the horses.

“That’s going to create a problem for the county; that’s a county-owned facility,” he said.

If the fairgrounds come into financial difficulties, Arends said he is worried about the future of the county fair and the 4-H program.

Muskegon county officials could not be reached for comment.

MacNeil said Great Lakes Downs will concentrate on making this season a positive experience.

“In the meantime, we are committed to putting on a good race meet this year,” she said. “It’s not just this business; it’s an industry. We’re committed to the industry.”    

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