BATAVIA — On an overcast Friday morning, the only action gracing the half-mile track at Batavia Downs was by Ideal Affair — an up-and-coming 3-year-old — and Green Baby — a 2-year-old whose name is aptly fitting.
The two Jim Graham-trained horses basically had their run of the place for the day as the stable area was a virtual ghost town.
However, all of that is quickly about to change.
Come Monday night, things will be a bit more crowded as the 66th season of harness racing will kick into full gear at America’s oldest lighted harness track with the first of 72 scheduled race dates.
“It’s good to be home in Batavia,” said 2011 leading trainer Alex Giuliani. “I’ve lived here all my life and Buffalo is quite a drive every day. It’s pretty nice.”
With racing still being held at Buffalo Raceway until Sunday, the majority of trainers, drivers and horses have yet to arrive in Batavia, leaving much of the treasured venue rather barren.
Yet the excitement can be felt from those already on hand.
“We’re coming off of a successful season and we expect this year to be just as good,” said Todd Haight, general manager of live racing. “We’re ready to go and the track is in good shape. There’s nothing like opening day.”
Now in his second year as the general manager, Haight sees that his venue is slowly, but surely, beginning to recapture some of that old glory.
A decade ago, that wouldn’t have seemed possible.
“Certainly there are a lot more fans here, between what we draw and what the gaming draws,” said Haight. “If you’re asking if we are ever going to hit the hay-day, I think those days are behind us. But I think when you combine our gaming attendance with our racing attendance I think we come pretty close.”
“As long as we’ve got the slots here we’ll be OK,” added Giuliani, who won 44 races for $179,263 in 2011. “Basically, we wouldn’t exist without the slots, bottom line.”
There are also a few changes that will come with the beginning of the 2012 meet.
Most notably, post time for the first race of all evening racing programs will be at 6:25 p.m., rather than the accustomed 6:40 p.m. slot, with the gates opening at 5 p.m.
Also new this season is the implementation of Sunday matinee racing on all four Sundays in August, which will take the place of Monday racing for that month. A total of six matinees are scheduled, which also include Labor Day and Columbus Day. First post remains at 1:15 for all matinees.
“Our fans asked for it because there is really no racing around here on Sundays,” said Haight of the earlier post time.
Batavia’s signature race, the Robert J. Kane Memorial Invitational Pace, has also been altered and will now offer an increased purse of $50,000. This season’s Kane Memorial will be run on Oct. 6.
And with all the changes and all the history that Batavia Downs has on its side, the potential seems limitless for the annual summer-fall meet at Genesee County’s only horse track.
“I’ve been coming to this race track since 1972 so it’s got a big place in my heart,” said Haight. “I’m glad that I have the opportunity to keep it going.”
The entire racing season will also again be streaming live at batavia-downs.com, a move that Haight has seen as highly successful.
“It gives our owners, trainers and people who make a wage a chance to watch the races if they can’t come out here,” said Haight.
And with former Buffalo Bill Thurman Thomas as a new ambassador for the Downs and Western Regional Off-Track Betting, there is a new level of notoriety that the track has not seen for a number of years.
Opening night will also feature appearances from a number of talented drivers that Batavia doesn’t often get the opportunity to see live.
Dan Noble, North America’s leading harness driver in 2011, will make his Downs debut when he handles Snapper in the season’s first race. A winner of 773 wins last season, Noble is currently fourth this year with 320 and is scheduled to drive in 11 of the card’s 12 races. Also making a special appearance on Monday night will be Jim Morrill Jr., who established track records for most wins and most earnings in a single season at the Downs in 2006.
Morrill, Jr. — who recently took the $445, 594 Yonkers Trot with Archangel — will be with early-favorite Jimmy the Terror in Race 1 and is also scheduled for 11 races.
The current leader at the Buffalo Raceway, Shawn Gray, will also be racing at Batavia Downs for the first time on opening night.
Opening night programs will be free to all spectators.
Yet despite all the hype and preparation that goes into the long season of racing in Batavia, the goals for the end of the season remain the same.
“We’re trying to retain our fan base and we’re certainly trying to increase it,” said Haight. “We want to maintain what we have and we work closely with our gaming people. That’s where the growth comes from.”
Last season’s leading driver was Jack Flanigen with 124 wins for $602,157.