Miami Valley Raceway opens Friday night in southwest Ohio and there will be no shortage of talent on the racetrack during the opening weekend.
Among the drivers expected to compete are the three most recent national dash champions: Ronnie Wrenn Jr.,and . Wrenn led North America in wins in 2013 with 714 while Palone led in 2012 with 675 and Noble was tops in 2011 with 773.
The new five-eighths-mile harness racing track, located between Dayton and Cincinnati, opens Friday night with an 11-race card. Post time is 6:30 p.m. for the first race.
Palone, who is based at The Meadows in western Pennsylvania, has won more races than any driver in North American harness racing history, with 16,223 victories to his credit entering Thursday.
Wrenn, who was the leading driver at Northfield Park last year, and Noble are expected to be regulars at Miami Valley, along with Pat Berry, Jack Dailey,, , , , , , and .
Hall was the leading driver at Scioto Downs last year and Smith, who is the youngest driver in history to amass 1,000 wins, was the leading driver at Hoosier Park in Indiana. Kauffman was the top driver at Lebanon Raceway, which closed in December to make way for Miami Valley, a $175 million racino with a grandstand to accommodate more than 1,000 fans and a casino with 1,600 gaming machines to help increase purses.
"I think everyone is looking forward to the racing," said Smith, who is from Washington Court House, Ohio. "There's going to be a lot of new faces and it should be very competitive. It's good. I think Ohio needs more drivers, new faces, to make the racing better.
"Whenever you've got money (for purses) you're going to get good horses, and good horses bring good races."
Miami Valley, which will offer live racing Wednesdays through Sundays until early May, held qualifiers on Feb. 1, giving drivers and horses their first trips around the oval. In the 14 prep races, nine were won by a horse that was no worse than second at the half-mile point, although it is too soon to draw conclusions about how the track's design and surface will affect racing throughout the season.
"It's going to take a while to get it set up, and making it tougher is the fact this is the worst winter we've had in 12 or 13 years," said Hall, an Ohio native who earlier this year surpassed 4,000 career wins. "I think the track is probably going to be a little tiring the first few months until it gets set up."
Kauffman, who lives 10 minutes from Miami Valley, said the track is not banked as much as Scioto Downs, the state's other five-eighths-mile oval, which might factor into driver strategy.
"At Scioto you can pull at the quarter and live for a long time," Kauffman said. "I think here people might sit and wait a little longer."
Smith said he thought speed would hold up based on what he saw in the qualifiers.
"Maybe that will change, but right now it looks like a front-end track," he said.
There is no inside passing lane in the stretch at Miami Valley, which also will affect strategy.
"That's a big game-changer," said Hall, who plans to race regularly at Miami Valley in addition to racing at The Meadows. "Usually you get a two-hole trip and it's a great place to be, but now you might look for other positions for horses you'd like to land up close. The track does have long straightaways, so that might help closing horses out some."
Added Kauffman, "The stretch is longer and you do kind of drift out more, which might open up room for horses."
Miami Valley Raceway, which has a 156-stall paddock, will host the James K. Hackett races for Ohio-sired 3-year-old colts and fillies, with purses increased to $25,000 for the finals, on April 26. The track also will present the first legs of the Ohio Sire Stakes series when the state's best 3-year-old pacers and trotters compete on May 2 and May 3.
In addition, the meet-ending May 4 card will include two new Grand Circuit races for older female pacers and trotters: The Sam "Chip" Noble III Memorial for the pacers and the Miami Valley Distaff Trot.
"It'll be interesting to see how it all goes," Kauffman said. "They have some issues they need to address, but they're working on them and have been real receptive to suggestions. I think there will be plenty of horses. Hopefully everybody can be successful."
"I think it's going to be a nice facility overall," Hall said. "People have waited a long time for an opportunity like this, and some had gone just about as far as they could go waiting for something good to happen. Like any new place, they've got some kinks to work out, but overall I think it's going to be great."
By Ken Weingartner/Harness Racing Communications/USTA