Northville Downs, Michigan’s Last Racetrack Closes After 80 Years

Posted on: February 10, 2024, 07:18h. 

Last updated on: February 10, 2024, 07:18h.

Northville Downs, Michigan’s last surviving racetrack, has run its last race. The 80-year-old harness racing venue in Detroit is expected to be demolished to make way for a $250 million mixed-development project.

Northville Downs, Detroit, Michigan, Plymouth Township
Northville Downs was packed out on its last night of racing on February 3, above, reminding regulars of the “good old days” – before gambling expansion began to cripple attendance at racetracks. (Image: Eric Seals/Detroit Free Press)

The closure is another nail in the coffin for horse racing in America, which was once the most popular spectator sport in the nation. More than 40 tracks have closed across the US since 2000. Grandstands that were built to seat thousands now hold dozens.

Only Game in Town

But on the last day of racing at Northville, The Detroit Free Press reported that the stands were packed out, just like the old days.

“Fifty years ago on a Saturday night, this is what it was like,” longtime regular Gordon Gillis told the Press. “It was crowded, it was crazy, it was the only game in town.”

There was a time when pari-mutuel horse race betting was, literally, the only game in town – or most towns at least. But horse racing’s decline has occurred in tandem with the rise of other gambling activities over the past few decades.

In recent years, Northville Downs has had to compete with Detroit’s three commercial casinos. Across the state, there are 23 Native American casinos, while Michiganites also have online casinos, poker, sports betting, and internet lottery sales just a few clicks away.

In the late 1960s, Michigan’s racetracks were attracting 3 million visitors per year and handling $260 million in bets. The decline started with the establishment of the lottery in 1973.

Negotiations Break Down

Until recently, Northville Downs’ owner, the Carlo family, had been in negotiations to relocate its operations by building a new harness racing facility in Plymouth Township in Detroit’s western suburbs. But negotiations broke down with Plymouth officials two weeks ago.

The proposal was controversial and faced local opposition. On January 23, the Plymouth Township Board of Trustees voted 6-0 to nix the plan, accusing Northville Downs of entering into “bad faith negotiations.”

The sticking point was Plymouth’s demand for a community benefit agreement to offset local concerns about gambling, animal welfare, and disruptive changes to the quiet township. Northville Downs argued the township’s demands amounted to an illegal request for extra money in return for approval of the project.

The Press reported that the Carlo family is still exploring possible alternatives, meaning that live racing still has a shot of returning to Michigan. At the moment, though, it looks like a long shot.

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