It may be early January in Western New York, but things will be heating up at Buffalo Raceway on Wednesday, Jan. 8, as the 99-day 2014 harness racing season opens up at the half-mile oval, located at the Erie County Fairgrounds in Hamburg.
Buffalo Raceway has reaped the benefits of early-season racing in recent years and Chief Operating Officer Jim Mango said the track needs to take advantage of it once again.
"We've had such good success the past few seasons with racing in January, February and March," Mango said. "We are one of the few tracks who are still willing to race then...it gives us great exposure and brings in some good drivers and horses."
Mango pointed out that Buffalo Raceway's export signal attracted $10.3 million in handle in 2011 and $15.3 million in 2013. "That's a 50 percent growth since 2011," Mango said. "Part of the success goes to the relationship we have with our guest sites, and getting us national outlets like Twin Spires and TVG."
Mango went on to say, "The winter racing is well received by the horsemen and it gives drivers from the East some opportunities. We have had a pretty good driver's colony here the first few months the past few seasons and I don't see any reason that won't happen again this year. There should be some fierce competition."
Buffalo Raceway will race on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday nights in January. Post time is 5 p.m. on Wednesdays and 6:40 p.m. on Friday and Saturday evenings. In February and March, Thursdays will be added with 5 p.m start time.
"We've had reasonable success on Thursdays but we are starting it in February this year and hope to take advantage of a lull in racing across the country," Mango said. "The 5 p.m. post time...there's not much competition and we are trying to take advantage of it, and there seems to be plenty of horses to race."
Mango went on to say, "Mickey Mantle will never hit another home run again and we know we'll never attract the crowds like we did back in the 1960s. It's just the reality. Horse racing is all simulcast-based now and we have to realize it."
While Mango admits wagering on-line continues to grow, Buffalo Raceway will do some promotions to bring fans in. "We got sports giveaways this year...hockey pucks, baseballs, basketballs, footballs with our logo on it. We are trying to add a little fun for those coming out."
The track continues to improve its backstretch and something that Mango is very extremely proud of. "There's not anyone that isn't impressed with our barns or state-of-the-art paddock. I will argue with anyone that we have the best backstretch in the country, thoroughbred or harness racing.
"We've honored our commitment to New York State as a race track and gaming facility," Mango said. "A lot of tracks across the country have ignored the stable area. We thought it a necessary improvement. I hear from horsemen daily who say they can't wait to get back to Buffalo because of the back side."
Buffalo Raceway has filled the more than 400 stalls on the grounds for 2014 and as Mango put it, "We could have easily filled over 600. That's why we race as much in the winter as we have a lot of people who want to compete."
Besides the impressive barns and paddock, the track has improved its track lighting this season which will only help the simulcast signal. With new graphics and cameras installed last season, Buffalo Raceway is ready to compete with the best in the country in distributing the best signal possible.
Mango added that the track is better than ever with more material put down and turns are properly banked. "It is a daunting task to keep the track in racing shape during the winter months in Western New York. I think that our track crew does a pretty good job."
The fans will also notice a change in the race calls. Michael Carter takes over the announcer's booth as previous caller Gabe Prewitt is now at Pompano Park in Florida. Ray Fisher Jr. will return to defending his 2013 driving title at Buffalo Raceway. He was named "Driver of the Year" in Western New York after his second place finish in the standings at the recently completed Batavia Downs meet. (Buffalo Raceway)
Drivers coming in for the first few months aren't known yet, but it is expected that drivers from Saratoga and Vernon will once again compete. Mango said nothing is definite but has heard Shawn Gray may also "pop in on weekends" to race. Also back will be perennial leading drivers Dave McNeight III, Kevin Cummings, Jack Flanigen, Ron Beback Jr. and Jim McNeight.
Expect the trainer's battle to a good one as well with J.D. Perrin the reigning champion at Buffalo Raceway. John Mungillo took the title at Batavia Downs and should arrive with a powerful stable once again. Jim Graham and David McNeight Jr. are also top conditioners expected to arrive with strong stables.
On the wagering side, the highlight once again will be the $5,000 Guaranteed Pick-4 every Wednesday starting in the fifth race. The guaranteed pool is part of the United States Trotting Association's Strategic Wagering Program. It is also co-sponsored by Buffalo Raceway and the Western New York Harness Horsemen's Association.
Mango said in closing, "I think the past few years our racing product and competition has improved. People have seen what we've had to offer and it's helped us."
Buffalo Raceway is located on The Fairgrounds in Hamburg, New York. Admission and parking are always free to the Raceway, for all ages. Reservations for live racing nights can be made by calling 716-649-1280 ext 300.
Seasonal harness racing takes place January through July Wednesday at 5:00 pm, Friday and Saturday at 6:40 pm. Simulcast wagering from across North America is available year round Wednesday through Sunday. For more information visit http://www.buffaloraceway.com/ or call (716) 649-1280.