Horses and horse racing have long been a part of Michigan’s agricultural community. The first pari-mutuel horse race in the state was held at the Michigan State Fairgrounds in Detroit in 1933. As recently as 1990’s, there were seven horse racing tracks in Michigan, the two largest of which were in the Detroit metropolitan area, but the sport had peaked and tracks began to close. The Detroit Race Course, located in suburban Livonia, closed in 1998 and was demolished to make way for a shopping center. In November of 2007, Great Lakes Downs track in Muskegon had run its last race, leaving Michigan without thoroughbred racing for the first time in decades.
One of the major figures in Michigan’s horse racing community was Jerry Campbell, who raised horses at his farm in Jackson County. As Great Lakes Downs was closing, Campbell announced an ambitious plan to bring back horse racing to the Detroit area. The $142-million-dollar project would include a 10,000-seat racetrack located on a large patch of farmland just south of Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport, including 1,080 horse stalls and a 200,000 square foot retail complex. The 320 acres of land, owned by Wayne County, was sold to Campbell for $1 on the condition that the track employ 1,100 workers.
Ordinarily it would have taken two years to research, test, and design a track, but the gap in the horse racing schedule left by the closing of Great Lakes Downs meant that they had just five months. The course was designed by Joseph King, who modeled it after Kentucky Downs. A slightly scaled-down site plan that had 6,000 spectator seats was approved in March of 2008, and ground was broken in April. Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano, a major proponent of the plan, estimates that the track will employ 1,200 and have $1.5 billion dollars in economic benefit for the State of Michigan.
The ambitious schedule gave only three months between ground breaking and the opening of the track. By June construction on the corporate pavilion and horse barns was nearly completed. 1,000 temporary grandstand seats were rented and installed, as the permanent seating wouldn’t be finished until 2009. The one-mile oval track was eight feet deep, with more than 100,000 tons of crushed stone and two feet of specially mixed soils from nearby Ida, MI. Track costs alone were estimated to be $10 million dollars.
On July 18th, 2008 Pinnacle Race Course opened on time, just three and a half months after ground was broken. It is the first thoroughbred horse racing in Detroit since the Detroit Race Course closed in 1998. Between 10,000 and 12,000 fans attend the opening day, with at least 3,000 people to be turned away. The track was very well received by fans, selling out on weekends through September with 4,000 spectators, and nearly $4 million dollars wagered at the course. While the amount is higher than anticipated, betting on horse racing is down overall across the state and nation, as the economy begins to slip into a recession.
After the season closed in October of 2008, plans for completing the rest of the track complex were put on hold and reviewed. Though $30 million dollars had already been invested, banks were unwilling to loan money to finance more construction on the track amid the financial crisis. The temporary grandstands are removed in April and replaced with a large tent. A further blow to the track comes in May of 2009 when the State of Michigan announces that it is slashing funding for Thoroughbred programs, and will cut race dates at courses across the state due to the financial emergency. Pinnacle runs fewer dates through the year, and struggles to stay afloat.
In March of 2010, the state announces that it will be cutting more race dates. To make up the gap, private associations pay the state to run races, which cuts into winnings and forces some horse owners to move to other more profitable tracks. The impact on the finances of Pinnacle is severe: In July, the course warns that unless the number of race dates is increased, it will have to close. Another blow comes in August, when the race course gets hit with $1.96 million in property taxes after it was found that the property hadn’t been on the tax rolls for 2009 and 2010 due to a bureaucratic error. As the track falls behind on its bills, water and power are shut off briefly for non-payment. Huron township claims that Pinnacle owes $150,000 for Police protection, and stops providing an officer for live race days.
By November of 2010, Pinnacle announces that it is suspending operations through the winter to save money. Simulcast betting ends, and the sports bar in the corporate pavilion closes, with all Pinnacle employees being laid off. Though the Campbell is optimistic that the track will re-open in the spring, he is unable to find outside investors, and the track surrenders its race license for 2011. Most of the gambling equipment was repossessed, and the property went into foreclosure in April.
After less than two years of operation, Pinnacle Race Course was closed permanently. Over $35 million dollars had been invested into the track, with the county spending $26 million dollars on infrastructure improvements. The failure of the track, which had been supported and backed by Wayne County raises questions about the land deal that gave 320 acres to Pinnacle for $1, part of which was later sold to a Native American tribe that wanted to set up it’s own gambling operation. An investigation by the Wayne County auditor general found that the county had badly mishandled the Pinnacle project, with some of the job “created” by the track including the counting of UPS delivery drivers, and Home Depot and Lowes employees as construction workers.
Though an investors expresses interest in reopening the course in November of 2011, the associated debts complicate financing the deal, and the offer is withdrawn. Some windows in the corporate pavilion are broken out by vandals over the summer, and scrappers begin picking away at the metal in the building.
Despite interest from at least one investor, Pinnacle Race Course would never reopen. In June of 2012, Crain’s Detroit Business reports that Michigan’s horse racing industry is “beset by a staggering decline in wagering that has been fueled by casinos and slot machine gambling at tracks in other states...” Wagering in in the state is off by 70% from its peak in 1997. The assets of the race course, including trucks, tractors, computers, tools, and fencing are put up for auction and sold. Campbell filed for bankruptcy in January of 2016, with at least $4.8 million in debts related to the track.
After sitting vacant for five years, the track and its buildings were in very poor condition. Grass slowly overtook the track, and the buildings were stripped of anything of value. The property was declared a nuisance by the township, and was demolished in January of 2016.