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Without help, could Michigan horse racing be in the final stretch?

Jack Lessenberry

I didn’t grow up around a racetrack culture, but the ponies did affect my life. I had a rather irresponsible algebra teacher in high school, who was very fond of horse racing.

I took Algebra I and II the last hour of the day. The teacher would put a bunch of problems on the board, tell us to solve them, and slip off to the track. We never reported him, and we all passed, though today I know about as much algebra as does my dog.

Well, I know only slightly less about racing than I do about algebra. My knowledge was formed largely from watching the Kentucky Derby on TV, and movies like the Lemon Drop Kid.

I did go to the Hazel Park Raceway once or twice years ago, but found it a seedy and depressing experience. The father of a friend, Detroit writer Dave Mesrey, actually dropped dead there.

Back then, you placed a bet by going up to the window, just like in the movies, and plunking your two dollars or $10 or $20 on Fleabiscuit.

I was also aware there were people called bookies who would illegally place bets for you if you couldn’t make it to the track yourself. Well, I learned recently my knowledge was way behind the times. Horse racing has gone into a steep decline – possibly because casinos and lotteries and other forms of gambling are ubiquitous. Seventeen years ago there were nine racetracks in Michigan; now, there are just two – Hazel Park and Northville Downs.

According to Lindsay VanHulle, reporting for Crain’s Detroit Business and Bridge Magazine, virtually all the gambling revenue these days comes from betting not on live races, but on so-called simulcast races broadcast at the track.

That would seem to me to take all the fun out of it, but now the racing industry wants to go a step further and have online betting, which they call by the sober term “advance deposit wagering.” Basically, you could sit on your couch and bet the rent money on the ponies without ever having to go near a race track.

Personally, I think that’s an awful idea, and was pleased that a provision that would have allowed online betting was stripped from a bill now before the state senate. There is a general consensus that Michigan’s horse racing statutes need to be updated, in part because of disagreements over how to split the simulcast revenue.

But the tracks themselves say they need online betting if they are to survive. Long ago, I learned that virtually every thinking person has some issues on which he or she is both conservative and liberal.

On gambling, I have the mentality of a Baptist preacher or a primitive Marxist. It is destructive, unproductive activity that ruins families and enriches some of the more unsavory elements in society. I recognize people have a right to do it, but we already make it very easy.

Allowing gambling addicts to blow their paycheck on a cellphone bet on a horse race they will never see sounds like bad public policy to me. The race tracks say they’ll eventually need this to survive. If that’s the case, I think we need to ask whether they should.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.