Buffalo Raceway is back and ready to go. Last July, a freak tornado hit the Hamburg, New York area and the racetrack and, in particular, the press box, suffered serious damage, enough to cancel the final days of the 2017 season.
All things are back in order and the 88-day meet kicks off on Friday, Jan. 12 and will race primarily on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays with some Sundays sprinkled in come June. Like many tracks, there is concern of a horse shortage and that requires creativity when it comes to scheduling. Jon Cramer is the operations director and he says that the track does what it can to offer as many races as possible, with 13 being the nightly goal.
“It’s supply and demand,” Cramer said, “If we have enough horses, we’ll run more races, if not, we have to reduce supply by cutting the number of races. Last year, we averaged 11.5.”
There is no fear of cutting race days, however.
“The dates are approved and we will race them,” Cramer said.
The horse shortage is nothing new in both harness and thoroughbred racing. If you look over entries, you will see many tracks shortening the number of races on some of their nights. Pompano will sometimes offer just eight races and Monticello will do the same. Tracks like those rely on local horsemen to provide horses and, when their barn shrinks, there is simply less supply and, as a result, less races.
If this reads as gloomy, Cramer says that’s not the case.
“Harness racing isn’t going anywhere,” Cramer said. “We’ll make changes when we have to, but the sport will be around.”
Wednesday is the track’s best night for wagering with all-source handle close to $250,000. On Friday and Saturday, it hovers between $160,000 and $200,000.
“Wednesday is a good night for us,” Cramer said. “Yonkers is dark and we’re not competing against the Meadowlands. The 5 p.m. post time also helps and you’re seeing both Yonkers and the Meadowlands trying earlier post times this winter.”
Yonkers moved its post time from 7:10 p.m. to 6:50 p.m. and the Meadowlands from 7:20 p.m. to 6:35 p.m.
There is a new claiming rule in effect this year at Buffalo Raceway. If a horse is claimed, that horse must remain on the grounds until the season ends. Most tracks have a 30- or 60-day exit policy, but because of the potential horse shortage, Buffalo Raceway instituted this measure that was agreed upon by both the racing secretary and the Horsemen’s Association.
“They agreed, and we think it will help,” Cramer said. “The last thing any track wants to see is a horse claimed and then shipped to another track.”
Cramer will also have to deal with upcoming negotiations, as the current agreement between the track and the above referenced Horsemen’s Association expires at the end of 2018.
Buffalo Raceway shares horses with Batavia Downs, which is 50 miles to the east. Buffalo runs January to July and, then, Batavia carries on from July to December. Both tracks are of the mom and pop variety. Other than the New York and Excelsior Stakes, there is no $150,000 invitational pace or trot — and that is by design.
“When you have those big races, people ship in to take the money and it doesn’t help our local breeders and owners. We’re a local track,” Cramer explained.
Like all tracks in New York, Buffalo Raceway plays host to New York Sire and Excelsior stakes races. The first installment at Buffalo is Wednesday, June 6, when 3-year old trotters take to the half-mile track in both series.
Because it is a track that caters to local ownership, you will see the same horses going at it each and every week. Last year’s Trotter of the Year, Empire Earl N, returns, as do others with catchy names like Lucky McTrucky, Itsonlyrocknroll A, Peter Pumpkineater, Vincent Van Go and City Kid, as well as the multitude that end in Hanover and Blue Chip. Purses range from $3,200 to $10,000 and most horses will run once a week.
Don’t take the locals for being slow, though — these horses zip right along. Last year, Utah Beach set the track record of 1:53.2 for aged colt pacers (five years old and up), while Sarah Cola set one for aged mare pacers by skimming the surface in 1:54.1.
Half-mile tracks do not always produce eye-popping final times and Buffalo has wide turns that can hurt overall speed. That said, any time a pacer gets under 1:55 at Buffalo, it’s impressive. The same goes for trotters who run under 1:58.
Steelhead Hanover holds the track record for pacers when he stopped the clock in 1:52.3 in 2012, while Gural Hanover set the mark for trotters with his 1:56.1 in 2014.
This will be the 76th season of harness racing at old Buffalo Raceway. If you appreciate older horses that work hard and grind, this is the track to check out. They go to the post at 5 p.m. on Wednesdays and Fridays and 6 p.m. on Saturdays.
As a kid growing up in the Buffalo suburbs in the 1970s and 80s, the radio was one of John Furgele’s best friends. In the evenings, he used to listen to a show on WBEN radio called “Free Form Sports,” hosted by Buffalo broadcast legend Stan Barron. The show ran weeknights from 6 to 11 pm and featured every kind of sport you could imagine. One minute, Mr. Barron was interviewing a Buffalo Sabres player; the next, he was giving high school field hockey scores.
But there was always one thing that caught John’s ear. During those five hours, Barron would give the results from Western New York’s two harness racing tracks — Buffalo Raceway and Batavia Downs. This is where John learned what exactas, quinellas, trifectas and daily doubles were all about. From then on, he always paid attention to harness racing, and when Niatross (a legendary Western New York horse) hit the scene in 1979, his interest began to blossom.
John believes harness racing is a sport that has the potential to grow and he will explore ways to get that done via marketing, promotion and, above all, the races themselves.
When he’s not watching races, John is busy with his family and his job in sales. Like the pacers and trotters, he does a little running himself and you’ll occasionally find him “going to post” in a local 5K race.