An End and a Beginning

Buffalo Raceway concludes season, Batavia Downs opens Wednesday.

by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228

It is over—for 2019.  The season at Buffalo Raceway, which began on Jan. 25 has concluded.  But, fear not.  If you live in Western New York, the same horses, same drivers and same trainers are heading east (about 45 miles) to Batavia Downs for its 2019 season.

I tuned in for the season finale at what the locals call “The Fairgrounds Oval,” and the final race was a good one.  It was a Class D pace—the lowest there—and it ran for what we might call a paltry purse of $4,400, but there they were, eight pacers giving their all.  I’m not sure the pacers know how much money is at stake, but one thing we do know is when the car speeds away, the pacers and trotters come to play.

Lucky Millionaire was shown no love as he was sent off at 16-1, but the 10-year old was feeling good, taking them through the quarter in 28.4 and the half in 58.2, but remember; he was 16-1 for a reason.  By three-quarters, the favored 9-year old Story Book took command and then held off the 7-year old Holla At UrBoy to win in a crisp 1:57.2  In Harness Racing, we divvy the purse as follows:  50 percent for the win and then 25, 12, 8, and 5 percent for places two through five.  For Story Book, it’s another $2,200; for Holla At UrBoy, $1,100 and $528 for the 16-1 Lucky Millionaire.  Also picking up checks were Indy Ingot, $352 and Autobiographical, $220.

This is why I prefer Harness Racing over the thoroughbreds.  Now, don’t get me wrong, there is nothing like a big thoroughbred race and if you caught the thrilling Haskell last evening, you know how exciting that can be, but the thoroughbreds, for the most part, cannot offer the Story Books and the Lucky Millionaires.   These pacers and trotters will race week in and week out, allowing fans like us an opportunity to develop favorites.

As a case in point, let’s look at the opening card at Batavia Downs.  The final race of the evening is for $4,900 and is open to non-winners of $2,250 in their last four races.  These horses can be claimed for $4,500 each and the eight fillies and mares have combined to make 158 starts this year, an average just under 20.  You’ll never see that in thoroughbred racing and nor should you.  They may share the name Horse Racing, but they are two completely different sports.

The Open I, as it is called runs for $12,500 and features the best that both Buffalo and Batavia offer.  In this race, the eight fillies and mares have combined to make 153 starts.

When people ask me why I prefer “the Harnesses,” that’s my answer.  I cite familiarity, consistency and regularity.  Sarah Cola, unless she is injured or getting a break is going to race at least three times a month at Buffalo or Batavia.  And, this year, in her 19 starts, she has four wins, one second and three thirds and $23,800 in earnings.

The Downs will race from Wednesday, July 25 through Saturday, Dec. 14, offering 65 racing dates.  Combined with Buffalo’s 66 dates, there are 131 racing dates in WNY over the 12 months.

“You can make a living there,” said driver Shawn Gray.  “The tracks are close enough, they race enough and the purses are good enough to make some decent money.”

Gray now races at Saratoga Casino Hotel, moving there to be closer to his family in Maine.

“I moved to Buffalo from Maine back in 2012,” Gray said, “I did well there, but I wanted to move closer to home so I now race at Saratoga and Plainridge (MA).”

It’s a special year for Batavia Downs.  On Saturday, Sept 14, they will host for the first time ever the finals of the New York State Sire Stakes for 2 and 3-year old pacers and trotters.   That’s eight races—four for the fillies and four for the colts and geldings— and each race has a $225,000 purse.

The New York Sire Stakes promotes the breeding, buying and racing of Standardbreds in the Empire State.  New York was the pioneer in creating this program and many states have since followed suit.  In addition to that, on that same Sept. 14, the Kane Memorial Pace for 3-year olds and up will run for a purse of $50,000.

The Downs will run just about every Wednesday evening and will run three or four days per week over the next six months.  They’ll run Sundays in July and August, but once the Buffalo Bills season begins, they’ll move to Saturday evenings.  No use taking on the team that generates TV ratings in the 30s and 40s during the NFL season.

Things are looking up at Batavia Downs (the first harness track I visited back in the day).  Purses are up 10 percent and the track, which almost closed several years ago, seems to be on solid footing.  It kicks off at 6 pm this Wednesday.






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