A visit to Hazel Park and a little love song to Detroit

A few years ago, my birthday gifts included this amazing map of Thoroughbred Racetracks of North America. It hangs in our laundry room and serves as a dreaming station/late-night handicapping reference when TVG covers tracks that are less familiar to the Dacuses. The most gaping hole is in the Mississippi/Alabama/Georgia/Tennessee/Carolina region (I frequently contemplate how miserable it must be to live in this area, although I know the Georgia Horse Racing Coalition  is trying to change this sad state of affairs). And in this map, Hazel Park in Michigan is not included.

My parents and sister moved north of Detroit in 1998. I was midway through college, and I stayed in Arkansas. I’ve visited the area at least once a year since then. During this time, I’ve gained an appreciation for this great city that weathered enormous challenges. Some of these obstacles damaged Detroit and its reputation. But its positives add up to an impressive resume. I am fascinated by the history of Henry Ford and the auto barons who made Detroit the automotive capital of the world. Detroit heard Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech two months before he gave it in Washington, D.C. The Motor City is the home of Motown and the Diego Rivera murals. Native son Jeffery Eugenides beautifully brings the city’s rich history to life in the 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Middlesex. The fascinating dichotomy that is Detroit is succinctly and magnificently rendered in (of all things) the 2011 Chrysler Super Bowl commercial that struck me as more as an ad for the city than the vehicle and made me immediately text my sister in pride. 

Hazel Park Raceway, located a few miles north of Detroit, hosted both thoroughbred racing and harness racing beginning in the 1950’s. I’ve read that in its heyday the scene was lively and robust. However, in 1984, thoroughbred racing ended and harness racing continued.

In 2014, after a thirty-year absence, Hazel Park started racing thoroughbreds again. I was eager to check it out, but I was unable to make it happen until this year. My husband and I made plans to attend Friday, July 1, when we were in town for the holiday weekend.

A few days before our trip north, The Detroit News published this article about the track’s comeback: Hazel Park serving to restore racing’s luster. 

I was especially captivated by these lines:

  • You spend any time around Hazel Park, and you can’t help but feel the optimism.

Maybe it’s wishful thinking. Maybe it’s misguided hope.

But maybe it’ll be close to what it was – soon.

  • Phillip Bridges Jr., a shed foreman, loves what is happening in Detroit, the resurgence and people excited about living and working in the city, and sees similarities at Hazel Park Raceway.

“It’ll get better,” he said. “Just like Detroit. Just like the old days.”

I knew Hazel Park’s fields and purse sizes would be small. I was mentally prepared for a track fighting for a comeback. I wanted to fall in love with the racing scene there, but I didn’t want to expect too much.

My husband and I invited my sister and her husband, who do not have much racing experience, to accompany us. Our visit happened to coincide with the evening of Hazel Park’s fireworks display.

My sister, Anne Nichols, and me at Hazel Park.

My sister, Anne Nichols, and me at Hazel Park.

When we arrived, a band playing a cover of the Cavalier’s “Last Kiss” welcomed us. Incredible sidewalk chalk celebrating the holiday weekend echoed the greeting throughout the track.

I went exploring. I checked out the grandstand. I visited the clubhouse, the paddock, a newer outdoor seating area and an outdoor bar. The mutual windows were hopping with transactions. Friends greeted each other on the apron. These Yankees—whose reputation had wrought them cold and uncaring—were friendly and welcoming, both to familiar faces and to outsiders. People seemed genuinely happy to be at Hazel Park.

Local track supporters were hosting PDJF (Permanently Disabled Jockey Fund) fundraisers. They worked the crowd and made cheerful small talk. I was six tickets in on their raffle and stopped by their dunking booth.

My visit to Hazel Park was extremely positive and exceeded my expectations. The track had a lot of energy and a positive vibe.

Perhaps a few more people were on hand for the firework festivities than the track usually hosted on a Friday night. I wanted to know how many. I asked several regulars for a comparison. The answers were mixed, but eventually I ascertained that a few more people were probably present for the special event. Which was okay. Perhaps these newcomers would recognize the splendor of thoroughbred racing and return to Hazel Park.

The next evening, Zac, a friend of mine from high school who has made the area home, came to my parents’ house for a cookout. We told him we had been at Hazel Park the night before. He said he was going there the first time for a diaper party the following Friday night (apparently, a diaper party is a dudes' version of a baby shower). I immediately enlisted his help in project determine-if-fireworks-night-was-an-anomaly. And then I realized it didn’t matter. Zac was going to Hazel Park for the first time for a guys’ night out. The track was increasing its reach.

And I cheered the comeback racetrack in the comeback city. Hazel Park is out of the gate running, and I’m betting on it to regain—or perhaps even surpass—its former glory.