Michigan in Quandary Over Purse Distribution

by Tom Schram

Michigan Thoroughbred horsemen say their industry is dying because of the unfair and illegal way purse money is being distributed. The Michigan racing commissioner counters that she is using past precedent to distribute the purses, and that it would be illegal for her to vary from that precedent without the consent of all parties.

The only thing the two sides seem to agree on is that the absence of a Thoroughbred racetrack in the metropolitan Detroit area is doing great harm to a vital state industry.

The parties came together May 21 for a contentious but polite hearing to discuss changes in the rules that determine how purse money is distributed. At the end of the hour-long hearing, no one believed progress was made.

The purse distribution issue is complicated, but comes down to the fact that after Ladbroke Detroit Race Course closed its doors in suburban Detroit in 1998, the Thoroughbred horsemen, now racing at Great Lakes Downs in western Michigan, began getting a smaller and smaller piece of the total purse pie. The system is based on handle, and Thoroughbred monies are divided between Great Lakes and Mount Pleasant Meadows, a mixed-breed racing facility in central Michigan.

Great Lakes Downs handle is about a 10th of what it was at DRC, and has fallen annually. Mount Pleasant Meadows' handle, while relatively small, has risen significantly in recent years.

The result is less money for Thoroughbred purses and more money for mixed breeds. This year, Great Lakes purses stand to fall some $10,000 per racing day compared to last year. The Michigan Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association claims the state's horseracing law distinguishes between breeds of horses, and that lumping Thoroughbreds with Quarter Horses is illegal.

Racing commissioner Annette Bacola said there is nothing much she could do.

"We can't change the law," she said. "We're not authorized to change the law. If they want to change the law, they have to go to the legislature. We're just going with the way it has been implemented the last seven years. Do I think it's fair? Maybe not. But is there anything I can do about it? No."

Bacola said Thoroughbred horsemen have been reluctant to take the legislative route because they fear that opening the law will let the state's powerful Standardbred industry grab more of the purse money.

Horsemen have taken legal action and have lost two cases, the racing commissioner's office said. The HBPA has appealed a third case, and a consolidated case may be decided late this year.

HBPA figures show that 64% of Michigan's simulcasting revenue is produced by Thoroughbred signals, and that Thoroughbred purses receive less than 40% of that figure. The National HBPA is covertly threatening to have affiliates pull Thoroughbred signals from Michigan, officials said.

Michigan HBPA president Bob Miller said the falling purse structure is causing the state's best horsemen to look elsewhere.

"People keep moving away," Miller said. "What are we going to do? We feel we aren't being treated fairly by the racing commission. We're suffering."