The Hazel Park Raceway, for decades the centerpiece of the Detroit mafia’s legitimate business portfolio, shut its door last week after nearly 70 years of operation. The horse racetrack was a college graduation gift from the local mob’s “founding fathers,” Giuseppe (Joe Uno) Zerilli and Vito (Black Bill) Tocco to their eldest sons and eventual successors, Anthony (Tony Z) Zerilli and Giacomo (Black Jack) Tocco.
The younger Zerilli and Tocco opened the track in the summer of 1949, shortly after receiving undergraduate business degrees from the University of Detroit. They were eventually forced to sell the raceway due to their organized crime affiliation. The then up-and-coming tandem of gangland figures was alleged to have been inducted into their fathers’ crime family around that same time, according to testimony in front of the U.S. Senate, “making their bones,” with the 1947 murder of area Greek mob gambling boss Gus Andromolous.
Current proprietors Hartman & Tyner, Inc. purchased the track in the 1970s. Throughout the mob’s three decades of ownership in the property, which sits just north of the Detroit border in the middle-class suburb of Hazel Park, a who’s who of Motor City mafia chieftains, captains and associates, held interests in the track, including the elder Zerilli and Tocco, who took over the town’s rackets in 1931 after winning what was dubbed in the press as the “Crosstown Mob War.” Bill Tocco passed away from a heart attack 1972. Joe Zerilli died of natural causes in 1977.
From its inception all the way into the 1980s, the track was the premier thoroughbred horse racing facility in the Midwest. Starting in 1985, the property became known for harness racing. Thoroughbred racing returned to the track in 2014. In the mid-1990s, the venue began simulcasting and accepting wagers on thoroughbred and harness races from all across the U.S. and Canada.
When the mob controlled the track, it was a gleaming, start-of-the-art facility known for pioneering innovation and a seemingly never-ending parade of celebrities passing through its gates. Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Jackie Gleason and Jimmy Durante were all frequent visitors to the grounds whenever they were in Detroit for a performance. Hazel Park Raceway was the first horserace venue to feature a 5/8th mile track, installed in 1954 and soon becoming industry standard.
“That place was a palace, it was a masterpiece, a vision of perfection,” recounted Tony Zerilli years after selling the track. “We were the envy of the whole world of horse racing. Everybody was copying everything we did.”
Zerilli and Tocco took measures, although some in vain and others simply for appearances sake, to keep criminal activity to a minimum on racetrack grounds.
“If Tony Z or Jack Tocco caught people booking bets at the track, they’d call them in for a meeting and heads would roll,” recalled one track insider. “I saw a number of guys go into Tony Z’s office and come out looking roughed up, just ashen with fear. They never had to be asked twice to stop.”
Zerilli was convicted of skimming $6,000,000 and maintaining silent ownership in The Frontier casino and hotel in Las Vegas in 1971, the impetus for his and Tocco selling the track. Tocco, the Godfather of the Detroit mafia for almost 40 years, died of heart failure in 2014. Zerilli, the crime family’s underboss, succumbed to a battle with dementia less than a year later in 2015. The pair, first cousins and one-time best friends, had been feuding for decades when they finally cashed in their proverbial chips, a good deal of the consternation traced to Zerilli’s casino bust years earlier and Tocco’s frustration with the resulting fallout.
Las Vegas gaming authorities became so worried about the mafia’s control of horse racing in Michigan in the latter years of Zerilli and Tocco’s ownership in the Hazel Park Raceway, certain races were taken off the gambling board in Sin City. Following the bust at The Frontier, the Detroit mob assumed silent ownership and control of The Aladdin casino and hotel before yet another indictment pushed them out of Las Vegas for good.
Members of iconic former east coast Irish mob boss James (Whitey) Bulger’s Winter Hill Gang in South Boston were dispatched to manipulate outcomes of races at the suburban Detroit track in the 1970s, leading to the arrest and eventual cooperation of Winter Hill Gang lieutenant, Anthony (Tony the Fixer) Ciulla, the most prolific race fixer in America at that time. Bulger, today serving a life prison term, was portrayed by both Jack Nicholson and Johnny Depp in Hollywood dramatizations of his reign (The Departed & Black Mass)