And they’re off!
Well, not quite yet as opening night of harness horse racing at Batavia Downs is a week away, but the thought of having fans back at the Park Road facility is music to the ears of Live Racing Director/General Manager Todd Haight.
“Now that we’re past our COVID issues, I hope, we’re excited to get our fans back,” Haight said today in an interview with The Batavian.
The 59-date schedule at the venerable half-mile oval that opened 81 years ago kicks off on July 21 with a NY Sire Stakes card featuring 2-year-old filly trotters. Post time for the first race is 6 o’clock.
Haight (photo above) said horse racing isn’t the same without the cheers of the crowd as the competitors come down the home stretch.
“Last year, we went the entire season without any racing fans, except some in the clubhouse eating. However, our apron was bare for the whole year and I cannot tell you what a different feeling that it is -- not having fans here,” he offered.
“How quiet this apron was and how quiet the enclosed grandstand was. So, that’s the big thing: We can’t wait to see our fans, especially in July and August when we get tremendous crowds.”
Haight, who has worked at Batavia Downs since 1974 (he said retirement isn’t too far away), said he is excited about several promotions, including videos of live racing on the track’s YouTube channel, as well as a couple of new “jackpot” wagers.
LIVE RACES TO BE SHOWN ON YOUTUBE
“We’re going to show every race live on our Batavia Downs YouTube page. I think people are really going to enjoy that,” he said. “We always get asked how can we watch the races, so now you can come here and watch them or go to an OTB (Off-Track Betting parlor) and watch and also on Batavia Bets (the Downs’ interactive online wagering platform).”
He also revealed that the Downs’ website will feature the daily racing programs for the entire season.
“This is more for the people that aren’t able to come to the track. Those who come to the track are still going to buy a program, and there’s a $5 free play (to the casino) in it, so you spend $2 and you get $5 back.”
Downs’ officials are placing a priority on building their simulcasting network, Haight said, adding that more access to the races through simulcasts at other racetracks, OTB locations and other online wagering platforms is key to reaching his goal of topping last season’s record handle.
“We know that when we’re able to put up a couple of program pages (on the website) when we have a guaranteed pool, we see a bigger handle,” he said. “I think by putting the entire card on every night, we’re going to see a difference in our wagering pools – be it our win pools or trifecta pools.”
GAMING COMMISSION ADDS JACKPOT BETS
Over the winter, the New York State Gaming Commission approved two new wagers -- Jackpot Pick Six and the Jackpot Super High Five.
“These are new to New York and us, although they are not new to other parts of the country,” Haight said. “We’ve seen tremendous pools at tracks – up to $200,000 -- that have been allowed to take these bets.”
He explained how they work:
Jackpot Pick Six – The bettor has to pick the winners of races six through 11, and the bet is only 20 cents.
“To win the jackpot portion you have to have the only ticket. If there’s more than one ticket, the jackpot portion of the pool carries over to the next day. So, as the favorites win over 40 percent of the time at harness tracks, it’s not easy to have the only ticket,” Haight explained.
“If more than one winner, those bettors will win something, but the jackpot segment of the pool carries over. We could see pools here that we’ve never seen since WROTB (Western Regional Off-Track Betting) purchased the track in 1998 and reopened in 2002.”
Jackpot Super High Five – Calling it “the superfecta on steroids,” Haight said the bettor has to pick the first five horses in the last race of the night (which will have nine horses instead of the usual eight).
“Again, that makes it a little bit tougher to win, and the jackpot carries over with this bet as well,” he said.
PROMO TIE-INS WITH THE CASINO
Haight said the track is big on promotional links with Batavia Downs Gaming.
“I don’t see any other tracks doing that,” he said. “We have a match play promotion where if you wager $25 on the horses, you go up to the gaming window and they give you $25 in free play. You have to earn five points to get that offer.”
He also mentioned an early bird daily double where those who wager $10 on the early double receive $10 back in free play. And, again, all of the racing programs come with a $5 free play to the gaming floor, and programs are free on opening night.
“We integrate as much as possible,” he said. “Even in the clubhouse, you purchase an entrée and we give you $10 back in free play.”
The Downs once again plans to operate in conjunction with the Breeders Cup, which is set for 3:15 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 6.
“The Breeders Cup is in California so it’s a little bit later start for us on the East Coast,” Haight said. “What we do is run two live races here in between each race of the Breeders Cup, which usually are run every 45 minutes. All told, I think there are nine Cup races and there will be about 11 races here.”
HORSE NUMBERS DOWN, PURSES UP
The Western New York Harness Horsemen’s Association, led by Administrative Director Bruce Tubin, continues its longstanding connection to Batavia Downs. WNYHHA drivers and trainers will be wrapping up their season at Buffalo Raceway this Saturday.
“We have a great relationship with the horsemen,” said Haight, noting that purses, race dates and other matters are subject to negotiation with the union.
He said that purses are going up by 10 percent this year to start the season and he anticipates another 10-percent increase in September or October due to record numbers being generated at the casino.
“We’ve had three $20 million weeks in a row. The better the casino does, the better for the horsemen. Creates more purse money,” he said.
With only 153 horses expected to be stabled at the track, Haight said he’s figuring on 10 or 11 races (all are set at a mile) per card – a couple less than what he would like to see.
As far as leading horses and drivers, he said that Black is Back, the No. 1 horse over the past two years, is expected to return. Top drivers include Drew Monti, Dave McKnight III, Ray Fisher and Billy Davis, while successful trainers include Jerry Sarama and Jack Rice.
HAIGHT: TRACK IS IN TIP-TOP SHAPE
The racing director said 1,100 tons of new stone dust has been applied to the track and the turns have been banked again, resulting in excellent conditions this season.
“We also put the passing lane back in this year,” Haight said. “Some people like it and some people hate it. It does change the style of racing a little bit.”
The passing lane is the inside lane of the track, which provides a route to keep horses from getting boxed in as much, he said. “I’ve got mixed feelings on it but the horsemen seem to want it."
Haight said his crew is doing a “great job to get us ready.”
“It’s a total team effort. A lot has to be done to get a track ready to race; we’re painting the tote board, trimming bushes, and have been working on the track and paddock since April.
Batavia Downs is one of seven harness tracks in the state. The others are Buffalo, Tioga, Vernon, Saratoga, Yonkers and Monticello.
SCHEDULE INCLUDES SOME MATINEES
The complete Batavia Downs racing schedule for 2021 is as follows:
Night, 6 p.m. – July 21, 24, 31; Aug. 7, 14, 21, 28.
Twilight, 5 p.m. – July 26, 28; Aug. 4, 11, 18, 25; Sept. 3, 4, 10, 11, 15, 17, 18, 22, 24, 25, 29; Oct. 1, 2, 6, 8, 9, 13, 15, 16, 20, 22, 23, 27, 29, 30; Nov. 3, 5, 10, 12, 13, 17, 20, 24, 27; Dec. 1, 4, 8, 11.
Matinee, 1:15 p.m. – July 25; Aug. 1, 8, 15, 22, 29; Sept. 6 (Labor Day).
Breeders Cup, 3:15 p.m. – Nov. 6.
The Downs will host NY Sire Stakes races on three consecutive Wednesdays – July 21 (2-year-old filly trotters), July 28 (3-year-old colt pacers and 3-year-old colt trotters) and Aug. 4 (2-year-old colt trotters).