NORTHFIELD VILLAGE — The oval track at the north end of Summit County has been a home for racing for generations, but with the expansion of gaming in the state, the stakes have grown tremendously.
The track was initially built in 1934 as Sportsman Park. The initial plan was for it to be used as a greyhound track, but its purpose soon switched to car racing — first midget cars, then larger versions through the 1950s. After about 20 years, Sportsman Park was demolished to make way for a harness racing facility.
Opening night was a Friday, Aug. 23, 1957. The feature one-mile race was for a purse of $3,000.
The half-mile track was built by Walter J. Michael, a horse breeder who also operated the Painesville Raceway in Painesville and the Grandview Raceway in Bainbridge. He ended up selling Northfield Park to a group of investors that included Carl Milstein, who died in 1999 after passing ownership on to his son, Brock Milstein — Chairman of the Board at Hard Rock Rocksino Northfield Park.
The Hard Rock Rocksino Northfield Park now provides the backbone of operations, with gaming revenue of well over $10 million per month. According to the Ohio Lottery, annual revenue from nearly 2,300 video lottery terminals brings the operation around $150 million in revenue per fiscal year, which runs from July to June. For the past two years, revenue from the machines was $146 million in 2016, and just under $154 million in 2017.
In contrast, on-site wagering brought Northfield Park $7.9 million last year, about half of which went to the horsemen, according to the Ohio State Racing Commission.
And in contrast to that first purse, the Aug. 12 Carl Milstein Memorial will feature a purse of $300,000, a car givaway, live music, special food trucks and a buffet under the direction of Hard Rock head chef Chris Poplin. The race is part of the 60th anniversary celebration, which will officially take place on Aug. 23, with a celebration that includes prizes, games, givaways and food.
The $268 million “Rocksino” opened at the end of 2013 following expansion of gaming in Ohio that allowed for casino-style facilities in select cities, and “racino” operations at select horse racing venues.
The horse racing industry had for years blamed competition from gaming venues in surrounding states for a decline of interest in the sport, as out-of-state facilities buoyed by casino revenue could offer more prize money, and thus attract more gambling.
Tom Aldrich, vice chariman of Milstein Entertainment, has been in the business since 1985. He said money from the Rocksino makes it possible to compete with purses being offered in neighboring states.
“We were always making a profit, but those were lean years,” he said. “People around the country know the difference between $14,000 races and $4,000 races.
“It’s also better for the horsemen,” he added.
In back of the track are living quarters, stables and training facilities, including a practice track and pool where horses are exercised.
Several hundred people, including drivers, grooms, trainers and others occupy the back area, along with hundreds of horses. The track has facilities for around 750, but typically houses around 500, said Dave Bianconi, executive vice president of racing.
On race nights — more than 200 per year — horses run the mile 15 or 16 times, with nine horses generally taking part in each race.
As many as 10,000 people can fill the grandstand and viewing area on signature events.
Groom Montray Ross says he has been around horses his entire life and moved from down south to Ohio to help a trainer he knows.
He admits the pay isn’t as good as other jobs he could be doing, but says that doesn’t bother him.
“Most people get paid for doing work, but they don’t like it,” he said. “This isn’t something that I get paid to do; it’s something that I want to do.”
Kelly Jackson, a trainer/?groom from Mentor on the Lake, says the work consists of exercising the horses, in addition to training the animals to run at faster, race pace. Plus there is a lot of clean-up work to do, including shoveling stalls and brushing the horses after workouts.
“You find out what you like to do and you go for it,” she said.
The horse business also has its fair share of locals, including Bill Malenchek, who has worked at the track for 27 years.
“It’s always something different,” he said, explaining he’s done just about every job there — including checking tattoos to verify horses are the ones actually scheduled to run, and work in the “money room” where cash is counted.
“After a while, you get to hate it,” he said, referring to counting cash, adding machines have made the process easier over the years. “They even kick out the counterfeits.”
For more information on the Aug. 12 Carl Milstein Memorial and Aug. 23 anniversary celebration, see www.northfieldpark.com.
Eric Marotta: firstname.lastname@example.org