Lost History: Detroit Race Course's Michigan Mile

December 9th, 2020

The state of Michigan has a rich sports tradition, encompassing the Detroit professional teams as well as those representing the major universities located in Ann Arbor and East Lansing. But as any local fan can attest, experiencing any of them reaching the top has been an agonizingly irregular occurrence.

Just as spotty has been the ability to sustain Thoroughbred racing in Michigan. Over the past 75 years, Detroit metro tracks at the old state fairgrounds site, Hazel Park, and at Pinnacle Race Course near the airport in Romulus, have all shuttered. Outstate tracks such as Great Lakes Downs and Mount Pleasant Meadows have followed suit.

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Detroit Race Course, in Livonia, was the most successful of the state’s tracks, and once a year for more than four decades attempted to give Michiganders a taste of the best racing had to offer. It often succeeded, and the vehicle used to achieve that was a race colloquially known as the Michigan Mile.

Inaugurated in 1949 at the old state fairgrounds track, where it was surprisingly run on turf, the Michigan Mile found a newer, permanent home the following year when the all-dirt Detroit Race Course opened for business. By the latter half of the 1950s, the race began to hit its stride.

The first truly notable winner of the Michigan Mile was Nearctic, who captured the 1958 edition en route to Horse of the Year honors in his native Canada. Nearctic is now best known for siring Northern Dancer, the 1964 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner whose influence at stud and in pedigrees was felt globally for generations to come.

Black Tie Affair would win the 1991 running of the Michigan Mile. (Keeneland Association/Keeneland Library)

The Michigan Mile Boom

The 1960s proved a boom time for the Michigan Mile, the name of which was modified as the race distance was gradually increased throughout the decade. The legendary Calumet Farm won the 1962 Michigan Mile and One-Sixteenth Handicap, as it was then know, with the previous year’s Travers winner Beau Prince.

The following year, Crimson Satan, who had been the champion juvenile colt of 1961, carried a stakes-record 128 pounds to victory by 5 1/2 lengths. Finishing second and third were Decidedly and Greek Money, respective winners of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in 1962.

By 1965, the race had acquired a six-figure purse for the first time and was known as the Michigan Mile and One-Eighth Handicap, a moniker it would have until its end. That year’s edition was one of the best in its history as Old Hat, who would win a second champion older mare title that season, defeated eventual Horse of the Year Roman Brother by a half-length.

Upsets were common in the Michigan Mile in the latter half of that decade.

In 1966, reigning champion 3-year-old colt Tom Rolfe finished second while toting 127 pounds. In 1968, one month before the Detroit Tigers rallied from a 3 games to 1 deficit to win the World Series from the St. Louis Cardinals, fans at DRC witnessed one of the biggest upsets in Mile history.

Damascus (Coglianese Photos/NYRA)

Favored at 3-10 and assigned a staggering 133 pounds was the reigning Horse of the Year, Damascus, who at that stage of his career was already a bona fide future Hall of Famer. However, a terribly slow start saw Damascus a career-high 14 lengths off the lead around the first turn.

A moderate pace and a very wide rally in the stretch did Damascus no favors either. Eventually, the champion barely got up for second behind the 3-year-old Nodouble, who carried a feathery 111 pounds. An Arkansas-bred, Nodouble wound up being a very good horse as he won champion older male titles in both 1969 and 1970.

The Mile was divided for the first and only time in 1972, with the first division going to the future sprint star King’s Bishop over that year’s champion older male Autobiography. Fillies also did particularly well in the years ahead. My Juliet, who had won a sprint championship the year before, stretched her speed and won the final stakes of her career in the 1977 Mile. In 1980, Glorious Song won the Detroit feature en route to champion older mare and Canadian Horse of the Year honors.

The latter half of the 1980s was another interesting time in Mile history. Badwagon Harry, a Michigan-bred, won his home state’s most prestigious race in 1985, while the famed Greentree Stable was victorious in 1986 with the versatile Ends Well. Waquoit, the pride of New England, captured the 1987 edition, and the following year saw the brilliantly talented Lost Code win what turned out to be his final start in facile fashion. Like Crimson Satan before him, Lost Code carried a stiff 128 pounds.

The Michigan Mile’s last significant winner was Black Tie Affair. The 1991 Mile was the second of six consecutive stakes wins for the Chicago-based gray, whose season culminated with a victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. The blue-collar warrior was voted Horse of the Year.

Like many racetracks throughout the country, especially those in the Midwest, Detroit Race Course’s fortunes began to decline in the 1980s and 1990s due to increased competition for the gambling and entertainment dollar. The stature of the Mile itself also began to wane as regional competition from newer races, like the Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs, intensified.

The Michigan Mile and One-Eighth Handicap, which had maintained Grade 2 status since the grading system was introduced in the early 1970s, was run for the final time in 1993. Detroit Race Course closed permanently five years later.

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All images from the Keeneland Library in this story are protected by copyright and may not be reproduced in print or electronically without written permission of the Keeneland Library.