There has been a lot of activity at the Erie County Fairgrounds this past year and some major improvements have been done for this year's Buffalo Raceway harness racing season.
Under the direction of the Erie County Agricultural Society, the Buffalo Trotting Association and the WNY Harness Horseman Association, three of the oldest horse barns (13, 14 and 15) were torn down and replaced. Barn 15A had a new roof put on, 11A has improved drainage, several barns had wood replaced, painting done and stall mats installed.
In addition to the horses quarters, the grooms/jockey/drivers quarters (by the horse arena on the Clark Street side of the fairgrounds) has had new windows installed and been repainted. The five blacksmith areas are also repainted.
The half-mile racetrack has been resurfaced with 600 tons of new racetrack material, to give a better racing surface for the horses.
This project was projected to cost around $2 million, with the majority of the funds coming from the Hamburg Casino gaming center, Jon Cramer, director of operations for the Buffalo Raceway said. A portion of each dollar from the casino’s video gaming machines are designated for race purses and education.
“A commitment was made to invest in the Raceway,” Cramer said. “Since then, not only has there been work on the buildings and track, but there was an increase in the purse monies and this year the race meet was extended to 99 days.”
The 2012 racing season runs from Jan. 11 to July 22, with Thursday races being added this year in April and May.
“We are doing really great since we opened up,” Cramer said. “So far the handle is up 75 percent and much of that is being attributed to some of the high quality drivers that have come to race this year in Hamburg”
Shawn Gray, who is the highest rated driver in North America based on the Universal Driving Rating System (similar to baseball’s batting average) is at the track this year.
“Gray came here from Maine and he is the top driver here right now,” Cramer said.
Some of the other top rated drivers are Dan Noble, from Northfield Park in Northfield, Ohio; Jack Flanigan, winner of the 2011 WNY Awards Driver of the Year through the Upstate New York U.S. Harness Writers Association; Kevin Cummings and Ray Fisher Jr., as well as many other familiar names. As an example there is local driver Dave McKnight III, who is carrying on a family tradition of owning, training and driving horses. He was recently presented the Rising Star Award at the 2011 WNY Awards through the Upstate New York U.S. Harness Writers Association.
“We have some really great drivers here this year,” Cramer said. “We are drawing some of the top name drivers here now because we have higher purses and more days to race.
“Trainers, drivers, owners, they prefer to not have to be constantly moving their horses all over. So if they can have their stable in one area for weeks at a time, it actually cuts down on the cost,” Cramer said.
Also new this year is race announcer Gabe Prewitt, from Kentucky.
“What a voice he has and he has a great presence,” Cramer said.
Along with live racing at the track, there is also simulcast broadcasts from tracks all across the country.
With the Hamburg Casino at the Fairgrounds just across the parking lot, there are multiple venues available for visitors to Buffalo Raceway.
“On race nights we have shuttles that run between the casino and the race track,” Cramer said, who said they anticipate between 40,000 and 50,000 people at the track this year.
The restaurant has received a going over too, as is now the Winner’s Circle Cafe. Open every race night with over 75 tables, each is equipped with a TV screen to watch the races, “There’s not a bad seat in the house,” Cramer said.
Food ranges from salads, hamburgers, hot dogs, chicken wings and personal pizzas, to carved beef and turkey, provided by Delaware North. The simulcast menu includes chicken wings, hamburgers, pizza and wraps.
Private parties are still held at the cafe, which includes preferential seating. For more information, call 649-1280 ext. 300.
There are also special races, like the NY Sire Stakes on May 12 along with special promotions, like March’s Handicapping Contest April’s Thursday’s double points for the new Buffalo Raceway Players Rewards, a special Father’s Day promotion and on July 14, it’s National Back to the Track Day.
Buffalo Raceway Players Rewards, which is new this season, is set up that if one wagers $1,500 or more in a month, the person receives a 2 percent reward for all the wagers on participating tracks. Members are credited with reward points for the month by the end of the fifth business day following the close of the calendar month. The dollar rewards in the form of a wagering voucher will be issued at that time.
“We worked this out with the Horseman’s Association and offered the Players Card this fall and it has worked out very well, so far,” Cramer said.
“The card also offers a 1 percent pay back at the Hamburg Casino, so combined it is a 3 percent payback,” Cramer said.
Over the years, the racetrack has seen quite a few changes since James J. Dunnigan opened the doors of Buffalo Raceway in June of 1942, shortly after New York State passed a bill allowing pari-mutuel harness racing.
In 1966, the track was bought by Sportservice Corporation and in 1990, Buffalo Raceway was purchased by the Erie County Agricultural Society.
The society is dedicated to keeping the raceway as a quality harness facility and major economic contributor to the Western New York area, Cramer said.
For more information, visit www.buffaloracewy.com or call 649-1280.
By:Felice E. Krycia-associate editor