For the first time this year, trotters were barreling down the stretch at Northville Downs, and in the night’s opening contest, Travlin Swan held off a late challenge from Wonderful Day to place first.
The half-mile oval, roughly 30 miles west of Detroit, is the last track in Michigan where guests can watch and wager on live horse racing, and until earlier this month, Northville Downs hadn’t been able to host a single race since 2019. The track, along with Detroit’s three commercial casinos and other non-essential businesses throughout the state, was ordered closed on March 16 by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in an attempt to halt the spread of COVID-19.
And like the casinos, Northville Downs remained closed until Aug. 5, when an executive order signed by Whitmer authorized the track to reopen while following strict health protocols to promote the safety of customers and employees during the ongoing pandemic.
The casinos, which were granted permission to resume business by the same executive order, garnered most of the attention during their first week of operation, but Northville Downs opened for simulcast wagering Thursday, Aug. 6 at 11 a.m. and hosted its first live races last Friday night.
“We’re requiring the track and the racing teams to limit personal interactions to what is required to run a live race meeting safely,” said Richard Kalm, executive director of the Michigan Gaming Control Board, in a statement. “This level of care also must be extended to fans who visit the track.
“Fans can bet on races at Northville Downs or on out-of-state races through simulcast wagering,” Kalm explained. “If you wish to stay home, you now may use your mobile device to make wagers on live and simulcast pari-mutuel races through Northville Downs’ third-party provider, TVG Network. Other third-party providers may be available soon.”
Mobile betting already available on horse racing
As Michigan awaits the statewide rollout of online sports gambling, which is planned for late 2020 or early 2021, Northville Downs already offers mobile betting on live and simulcasted harness racing.
In May, the MGCB announced it would accept license applications for advance-deposit wagering from third-party facilitators, and in June the board approved the streaming and cable network TVG as Northville Downs’s digital wagering provider. When the track reopened this month, Michigan residents were free to begin legally wagering on Northville Down’s live races, along with simulcast races from tracks around the United States.
Simulcast betting accounted for nearly all of the handle at Northville Downs last year, according the MGCB’s Horse Racing Annual Report. The track took more than $60.5 million in bets on simulcast races in 2019 and just $2.1 million on live races. The state government, which collects a 3.5% tax on simulcast wagering handle, gained $2.1 million in tax revenue from Northville Downs. There is no state tax on live racing handle.
Compared to Detroit’s casinos, which generated revenue worth about $1.45 billion and more than $300 million in city and state tax revenues in 2019, Northville Downs is a minnow among megalodons in Michigan’s gaming industry. However, the track’s deal with TVG and its early implementation of online wagering should help Northville Downs squeeze as much revenue as possible out of a pandemic-shortened season — for the track and for the state budget.
COVID-19 related safety protocols
Harness racing season was scheduled to begin at Northville Downs on March 20, four days after the pandemic forced businesses in Michigan and around the country to shut down. The track remained closed for almost five months, and upon reopening, the number of live racing dates was cut from 52 to 18 between Aug. 14 and Oct. 10.
Now-familiar health measures — similar to those in place at Michigan’s tribal and commercial casinos — were on display during a recent trip to Northville Downs. Guests and employees must wear masks or other facial coverings and their temperatures are checked via infrared thermometer upon entry. Smoking is prohibited, hand sanitizer stations are set up at multiple locations in the track’s clubhouse and grandstand, and signs reminding customers of the symptoms of COVID-19 are posted throughout.
Social distancing is also mandated, although during a typical evening of simulcast wagering, maintaining six feet of personal space did not appear to be much of a concern.