Saturday, August 8, 2015

Closing day at Hazel Park

After 30 years in exile, the ponies are back. 
Now they're leaving again.

Six hours before post time, and the clubhouse is already full. One by one, the old men amble in, floating up the escalator, staking out their turf, scribbling in their forms.

It is the last night of live racing.

The horsemen are pulling out. 
The money's all gone.

So today it ends.

Whether the ponies come back next spring is anyone's guess. 
Still waitin' on the morning line. 

I first came here in '74. 

My father brought me to see the buggies. I was 5.

Won 50 bucks that night. 

Now after another day watching the morning workouts and gallop girls, another day of Coney coffee and buttered toast, I make my way back to the clubhouse and find an empty seat. 

Table 709. 
Last one in Money Row.

Money Man is here.
So's Cabbie.

So's Old Man George, cloudy and stooped in his Kevorkian cardigan.
He is the constant. 

Between races, Rasheed bounces from table to table, picking the brains of his fellow horseplayers. He is animated and agitated. The horse don't lie.

I scan the channels for the feed from Thistledown, and I hear the voice of Kate Smith above the din.

Someone, somewhere, is blaring "God Bless America."

On a wall of monitors in the ragged clubhouse, I see a man on horseback at the Meadowlands clutching an American flag.

It is 18 minutes till the eighth race. 

On the other side of the glass, a man watches the races at Gulfstream on a monitor. He is using binoculars.

I am home here.
We are all home.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Students from St. Clare of Montefalco march in the Unity Walk on Saturday, May 2.

Grosse Pointe and Detroit families unite to march against violence

By Dave Mesrey

Hundreds of Detroit and Grosse Pointe residents came together Saturday in a show of solidarity in the wake of the shooting deaths of Paige Stalker and Christina Samuel.

Stalker, 16, of Grosse Pointe Farms, was shot and killed on the city’s east side near the Grosse Pointe Park border on Dec. 22. Samuel, of Detroit, was shot and killed in her car on Christmas Eve near Eight Mile and Gratiot. She was 22.

The Unity Walk, sponsored by Save Our Children’s Future of Michigan, took place along Mack Avenue, which borders Detroit and Grosse Pointe Park on the city’s east side.

The nonprofit community group is the product of an unlikely friendship between Stalker’s grandfather Dave Lawrence and Samuel’s father, Chris Samuel, who’ve forged a strong bond in the aftermath of their families’ tragedies.

“Chris is my brother and my rock,” Lawrence said.

Grosse Pointe Park mayor Gregory Theokas and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan were on hand and addressed the crowd in a rally at Mack and Alter.

“What you saw was two families sharing the same pain,” Duggan said. “They responded to the attacks with unity. … I’ve never seen this in my lifetime. The way you handled this tragedy, you’ve put the city of Detroit on the road to being a much better place.”
Detroit mayor Mike Duggan, left, greets the families of Paige Stalker and Christina Samuel.

Other speakers included Detroit City Councilman Andre Spivey, U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence and YouTube sensation Fredrick Wilson II.

“This is the dawn of a beautiful community coming together,” Wilson said.

“This gathering is absolutely what this country needs,” Lawrence said, adding that the deaths of Stalker and Samuels would not be in vain.

Notable among the marchers Saturday were students, parents and staff from St. Clare of Montefalco, the diverse elementary school located in the heart of the march route.

Long an anchor in the neighborhood, St. Clare is quietly leading its community forward, striving to give students a quality education no matter what side of the border they live on.

Founded in 1926, it is something of a microcosm of the Unity Walk: a multicultural, multidenominational school focused on peace and nonviolence.

“We had children and families from both sides of Mack marching together,” said Principal Sr. Kathy Avery. “Some of our children knew the two girls that were killed, so I think it was especially meaningful to them.”

Detroit resident Tom Sherry and his wife, Jennifer, marched in the parade with their two children, both of whom are students at the school.

“St. Clare is a loving, integrated community,” Sherry said. “It’s a living example of our shared future.”

A key speaker at Saturday’s rally was federal Judge Terrence Berg, a Grosse Pointe Park native and St. Clare graduate recovering from a gunshot wound he suffered in an attack outside his home in March on Detroit’s west side.

“We know these incidents do not tell the whole story of Detroit,” Berg told the crowd. “We’re all here because we love Detroit. We’re here because of our commitment to peace and nonviolence.

“We must ensure that every child in Detroit gets a quality education. If we don’t better educate our children, we will not be able to reduce the problem of gun violence.”

For more information, visit If you have information on the deaths of Paige Stalker or Christina Samuel, you can leave an anonymous tip with Crime Stoppers at 1-800-773-2587 or go to

Monday, March 16, 2015

Four Legs Good, Two Legs Bad?

Eight Belles, who finished second to Big Brown in the 2008 Kentucky Derby, crumpled in a heap after the race, shattering both of her front legs. She was quickly euthanized on the track at Churchill Downs in front of 157,000 fans.   Brian Bohannon/Associated Press

May 16, 2008

The ‘sport’ of kings can help inject life into metro Detroit’s sputtering economy, but underneath its glossy surface lies an often cruel and unusual business.

By David Mesrey

I’m the son of a horseman. Or, more accurately, a horse man. My father spent most of his adult years in one of two places: behind the counter of a grocery store or behind the gates of a race track. Winter, spring, summer and fall, he could be found at  DRC, Northville Downs, Windsor Raceway, or Hazel Park Raceway, where, in the fall of 1980, he lost his life in the grandstand.

As a boy, I tagged along with my father to all these tracks day after day, week after week. I studied harnesses and thoroughbreds. I learned about gaits and weights, bits and splits, objections, inquiries, trifectas and superfectas.

When I grew up, I was gonna be a jockey. I’d ride the sons of Alydar and avenge his defeats to the dastardly Affirmed. I’d be the next Willie Shoemaker, but always aboard the underdog. The longshot. The dark horse.

Horse racing was in my blood.

And it always will be, to some extent, not just because of how my father lived, but also because of how he died. On a fateful autumn night, my father managed to win some $300 at the track, and as he stood to place another bet, a heart attack felled him on the grandstand stairs.

Last Saturday afternoon, I was again reminded of my father. As I swilled a mint julep and rooted for underdog Smooth Air to win the Kentucky Derby, I wasn’t thinking of the inherent cruelty of the sport. I was imploring people on the front porch to come inside the house. 

“C'mon, guys! They’re at the post!” 

What followed, as always does the first Saturday in May, was “the most exciting two minutes in sports.” And for a change, the favorite won.

But moments after the race ended, I saw something I won’t soon forget.

The filly had fallen.

Eight Belles, who’d not distinguished herself at all in 2007, had “turned the corner,” as they say in sports. According to The New York Times, she’d won just one of five starts as a 2-year-old (thoroughbreds are raced at 2, well before their knees are even fused), but in her first race as a 3-year-old in 2008, she won by a remarkable 15 lengths. In fact, she won all four of her starts this year. That remarkable turnaround raises some nagging questions

Nevertheless, Eight Belles certainly made a name for herself on the track. Her owner, Rick Porter, also wanted to make a name for himself and, no doubt, started seeing dollar signs. Big dollar signs. Late last week, he decided to enter his prize pupil in the Derby. She would be the only filly in an otherwise all-male field.

Eight Belles was no dainty lady. She was as big as the boys, and her handlers thought she just might be the belle of the ball. When the gates flew open, Eight Belles broke from the 5-hole and held her ground for more than a mile; she was a genuine contender. 

But, as always, there was genuine risk. 

Then at the top of the stretch, jockey Gabriel Saez asked her for more. They always ask for more. The diminutive Panamanian, barely 20 years old, whipped his mount hard down the stretch. First with the right, then with the left.

Gallantly she galloped past the besotted throng in their high-priced hats and designer Derbywear. Boldly she strode past the towering spires of Churchill Downs.

And were it not for the odds-on favorite, Big Brown, Eight Belles just might’ve won the Run for the Roses. But Brown blew by her in that last quarter-mile and left her on the dust heap of history.

Eight Belles placed second, though, besting 18 of 19 boys in the process.
But as everyone knows by now, that’s not where the story ends.

Moments after crossing the finish line, the fragile filly collapsed in the second turn, in front of some 150,000 spectators in Louisville and millions more watching on television. The cameras cut away. 

Find Big Brown. Quickly. 
Find the stud! 
There he is! 

Focus on the winner. 
Eyes on the prize.

Eight Belles, having trained most of her short life for this most lucrative of races, had suddenly crumpled in a heap. Her spindly black legs could no longer support her heaving torso. Both of her front ankles, like the illusions of countless casual observers, were shattered — irreparably damaged.

The jockey, Saez, was thrown from the horse, the vets rushed in, the ambulances surrounded her, her fate was sealed. 

Eight Belles was likely given an intravenous injection of barbiturates, which instantly — and mercifully — killed her. She was no longer of use to her owner, to her trainer, to her industry. And so to the dust heap she went. A ghastly scene, to be sure. But if Eight Belles were in shock, she likely would’ve been shot, point blank in the forehead, with a .22-caliber pistol, right there on the track. 

This sort of tragedy rarely plays itself out in the public eye. It’s something that’s raked out of the stall and under the straw all too often. According to the Times, for every 1,000 racing starts in the United States, there are 1.5 career-ending breakdowns. 

That’s an average of two dead horses a day.
I don’t know about you, but I hope I’ve seen my last one.

Quarterhorses in America, by contrast, are handled much more sensibly. Much smaller than thoroughbreds, they’re typically broken at 2 years old, and lightly ridden for another year. Walking, trotting, cantering. But with the big money at stake with the big horses, thoroughbreds are all-out galloping on their delicate appendages by age 2.

Detroit native Kristen Billiu, who now raises horses in South Carolina, says that’s simply too soon. 

“Their bones are much too fragile to be ridden that hard, that young,” she says. 
She’s not alone.

Sheryl Leigh-Davault, an owner and breeder in Cookeville, Tennessee, says it’s shameful for owners to invest so much in breeding and training these beautiful animals “only to use them for our own greed.”

Thoroughbred horses are magnificent creatures that are still growing at 2 and even 3 years old. One Maryland breeder tells me that saddlehorses, for instance, often aren’t even “backed” at age 3 “because their owners care enough to let them finish growing before even working them lightly, let alone galloping them every morning.”

After Saturday’s sad spectacle in Louisville, it’s impossible to ignore the plight of the thoroughbred industry: Even when horse racing is clean, it’s still a dirty business. 

For every Genuine Risk, there are thousands like Eight Belles. 
For every Secretariat, scores of Barbaros

And broken bones are just one of the many hazards racehorses face. Ulcers and heart murmurs are commonplace. And because of overexertion, these horses frequently bleed from their lungs. Simply put, a thoroughbred has much better odds of being destroyed by age 3 than it does of winning a bouquet of roses.

Colorful images and slick marketing campaigns have traditionally shielded the public from harsh realities like these. Whether it’s fast food, prescription drugs, or parimutuel wagering, hard truths are too often skillfully concealed by those in control. With a new thoroughbred race track set to open this summer near Metro Airport, some tough questions need to be addressed in Michigan.

Pinnacle Race Course, according to its website, aims to be “a world-class venue.” If that's the case, then perhaps owner Jerry Campbell should consider a synthetic surface such as Polytrack, as they’re using throughout California. Or perhaps Michigan racing commissioner Christine White might consider regulating the use of whips, as they do in England. 

But horse racing’s biggest issues today are the breeders, trainers, and owners who value speed (i.e., money) above all else.

It’s high time we took a closer look at this so-called “sport of kings” in Michigan.
After casting off my rose-colored glasses, I’m not so sure it’s a sport after all.

A version of this story first appeared in the Detroit Free Press.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Can the Lions exorcise the ghosts of playoffs past?


As Ndamukong Suh and the Detroit Lions get ready for their wild-card matchup today in Dallas, they're focused on stopping Tony Romo, DeMarco Murray, and Dez Bryant.

That's their job.
Surely Coach Caldwell has them well-prepared.

As you and I get ready for today's game, we're focused on watching it.
That's our job. We just sit back and watch.

For many Lions fans today, there's hope.
Hope because, hey, the Lions are in the playoffs.


That's right, Jim.

Sure, Matthew Stafford and the Lions went out with a whimper against the Saints last time around.

So what.

So they lost again at Lambeau last week.
Big deal.

The Lions are back in the playoffs.

For disillusioned Lions fans, of course, this is no cause for celebration.
We've seen this movie before. We know how it ends (usually around midway through the third quarter).

We can't help but suffer the flashbacks.
Mark Rypien. Sterling Sharpe. Scott Mitchell.

They're seared into our psyche.

Looking back on their woeful playoff record over the last half century, it hasn't really mattered who they face in the postseason.

The result is always the same.

Everyone knows the Lions haven't won a playoff game since 1992, when Erik Kramer and Willie Green (The Touchdown Machine) led the Lions to victory over young Troy Aikman and the Cowboys:

That, of course, was at the Silverdome (don't look!) But who among us remembers the last time the Lions won a playoff game on the road?

For that we'd have to take the wayback machine all the way to 1957 San Francisco, where Y.A. Tittle and the 49ers nearly derailed the Lions en route to their last NFL championship.

The Lions prevailed that day on the legs of Tom "The Bomb" Tracy ...

... but road playoff games have been a nightmare for them ever since.

In the years since they knocked out the Niners, the Lions have traveled to Washington, Philadelphia, Green Bay, back to San Francisco, and Tampa Bay, and every time they've come home with their tails between their legs.

The last time the Lions went to Dallas for a playoff game, it did not go well.

Of course, home field advantage is no guarantee either:

But maybe this time it's different.
Maybe this team's got what it takes.

To slay the Cowboys and the ghosts of playoffs past, the Lions need to do more than just play error-free football today.

Kyle Meinke over at MLive says the Lions need to score more than 20 points to win.

I say better make it 30.
Just to be safe.

On second thought, 40 sounds pretty good.
Hell, better make it 50.

For the Lions to win in Dallas today, everyone has to contribute.
Offense, defense, referees.

Sure, they're underdogs (again), but who knows ... maybe with Dominic Raiola and Ndamukong Suh back in uniform, they just might stand a chance.

Maybe these Lions will finally take flight:

Who knows?

We can't rule anything out (it's not even halftime yet).

Maybe if Stafford can conjure up the spirit of Kramer.

Maybe if Prater can conjure up the spirit of Eddie ...

Maybe if they can all conjure up the Spirit of Detroit ...
Detroit Free Press
If Lady Luck and the Big Buck smile upon them, maybe — just maybe — the Lions can pull this off.

Of course, a little prayer couldn't hurt either.

"Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus. Amen.”

Dave Mesrey is a veteran journalist who’s worked for the Metro Times, Hour Detroit, and ESPN’s The editor of Willie Horton’s autobiography, “The People’s Champion,” Mesrey was also a creative consultant on the 2013 Tiger Stadium documentary “Stealing Home.”

A version of this post first appeared on the blog of The Detroit Athletic Company.