Photos courtesy of Hazel Park Raceway.
This week Hazel Park Raceway in the suburbs of Detroit, Mich. reopens for Thoroughbred racing for the first time since 1984.
The track once housed more than 1,500 horses until they shifted to all-Standardbred racing and operated as a harness track and racino for decades. The move to bring back Thoroughbred racing has energized horse racing fans around the metro Detroit area, a part of the country that once upon a time was home to some of the best horse racing in the country and gave us Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg!
What horse racing fans in Detroit may not know is that horse racing has much deeper roots in the heritage of the city, deeper even than Van Berg.
Founded in 1701 by French-Canadian explorer Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, Detroit was a completely French town for many years. French settlers brought with them their culture, including horse racing.
During the winter, the most common outdoor activity in the early days of Detroit was horse racing on frozen streams!
By the mid-1800s Detroit had diversified beyond its original French settlers and was dominated by mostly Protestants, but the French Catholic church persisted in the area. This is important because French Catholic’s celebrated Christmas well before the Protestants, and they celebrated in a very unique way.
The reveillon supper was a Christmas Eve tradition in France that was imported to Detroit. Families would eat a huge feast (including pigeon pie!) and then retreat outside to watch the men race horses through the streets, right up snowy Michigan Ave.!
The tradition was still commonplace in 1851 when Ulysses S. Grant found himself stationed in Detroit after the Mexican-American War. Grant was an avid horse racing fan and often took part in racing horses through the streets of Detroit as well as up and down the frozen Detroit River in the winter.
Horses in those days were well-equipped to race in heavy snow and on rock-hard ice and roads.
Today, Hazel Park has taken great care to refurbish the 5-furlong trotter track into a smoothed-out, soft and sandy Thoroughbred dirt track to protect the feet of today’s powerful-yet-fragile horses.
No word yet on whether or not the track plans to have racing on Christmas Eve, but I’m guessing not.