A Grand Plan: The Short Life of Michigan's Pinnacle Race Course

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December 9th, 2020

Like many states in the early 1930s, Michigan approved parimutuel wagering on horse racing to bring in desperately needed revenue amid the Great Depression. By 1936, racing at the Detroit Fairgrounds was thriving: even the great Seabiscuit ran his first race for Tom Smith and Charles Howard there.

Fast forward 70 years and the once-flourishing racetracks of the Great Lakes State were floundering. Enter Pinnacle Race Course.

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Pinnacle was to revive the Sport of Kings in the Detroit area.

Its predecessor, the Detroit Race Course, had closed a decade earlier, with Great Lakes Downs, owned by Frank Stronach’s Magna Entertainment Group, continuing live Thoroughbred racing until it closed in 2007. While three harness tracks were still operating and Mount Pleasant Meadows ran mixed breed meets, the loss of Great Lakes Downs would leave the state without a consistent Thoroughbred venue. If a new track did not open to fill that gap, Michigan risked the loss of both horses and horsemen to surrounding states.

In late 2007, Jerry Campbell, a prominent owner and breeder in the state, announced Pinnacle Race Course intended to run live Thoroughbred racing and offer simulcasting from around the country. This new track would be located in New Boston, only a few miles from the Detroit Metropolitan Airport, and would be a part of an aerotropolis, where the track, retail shops, and more would create 1,200 jobs.

Campbell and wife Lisa had grand plans for Pinnacle: a turf course, 20 luxury boxes, seating for up to 10,000, barns with the capacity for at least a thousand horses, and a corporate pavilion. The track would race 165 days a year and play host to a Michigan sire series of races as well as featured stakes race like the Michigan Derby and the Michigan Mile.

In a time when horse racing faced competition with casinos and other gaming for the public’s gambling dollars, Pinnacle was an opportunity to recapture some of the share that the sport had lost over the decades. With only a few months to prepare for its opening, builders completed the first phase of the track, including the pavilion, barns, and a paddock, in less than six months. With that first phase complete, Pinnacle opened on July 19, 2008 to great fanfare.

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That first day, more than 10,000 people packed the track.

The crowd filled the newly built pavilion and the other temporary facilities to the point that people had to be turned away after the track reached capacity. Opening day augured good things for racing in Michigan, which had taken in $20 million in live wagering and $241 million in simulcast betting in 2007 – while casinos had generated $1.33 billion. Pinnacle seemed poised to give Michigan a much-needed boost in revenue and continue the tradition of great racing in the state that had started 75 years earlier.

By the fall of 2008, though, the country was mired in a recession that hit the Detroit area especially hard.

As the area’s automobile manufacturing industry wrestled with its future, racing in Michigan struggled too: racing fans pulled back, unable to spare the money they might have otherwise wagered, leaving the state short of the income necessary to sustain its racing industry.

Pinnacle had taken in $10 million over the course of its 63-day meet in 2008, down from $12.5 million that Great Lakes Downs had taken in the previous year. Over the next two years, Pinnacle’s original 82 days were reduced to 74 and then cut again to 41 in 2010. As the state continued to wrestle with economic woes, Michigan racing reeled from the cuts, with total handle falling from $203 million in 2009 to just under $145 million in 2011.

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Hazel Park (Wikimedia Commons)

Its debts mounting, Pinnacle suspended simulcasting after concluding its 2010 meet. The track had already been awarded dates for 2011 and Jerry Campbell held out hope that they would be able to have a meet. However, the absence of income from racing and simulcasting and other fiscal problems prevented Pinnacle from reopening, leaving Mount Pleasant Meadows the only track racing Thoroughbreds until Hazel Park restarted Thoroughbred racing in 2014 after nearly 30 years as a harness track.

A decade after its closure, Pinnacle Race Course is no longer there, demolished in 2016 after the property’s foreclosure and subsequent sale to make way for planned industrial development. Both Hazel Park and Mount Pleasant Meadows have since shuttered as well, leaving Michigan with one licensed racetrack, Northville Downs.

In early 2020, Michigan approved Advanced Deposit Wagering, allowing services like TwinSpires to set up operation. With ADWs now available, residents can once again wager on live racing, but this time from their phone or computer.