BATAVIA — When seven pacers took to the half-mile oval Monday night at Batavia Downs, the historic harness track officially began its 66th season of racing.
As the crowd shuffled in for the earlier first-post time of 6:25 p.m., accomplished mares such as Nancy Irene and Jimmy the Terror took to the track to strut their stuff.
And with the largest win pools in recent years climbing up on the midfield tote board for the first race of the 2012 campaign, the ever-increasing harness racing fan base settled in on a breezy and humid night at America’s oldest lighted harness track.
“It’s nice here in Batavia,” said driver Jim Morrill Jr. “These people here try very hard to put on a good show. And when a place tries like this we appreciate it.”
Moreover, the night got off with a decent surprise as Magic Card, a 4-year-old mare trained by Sherri Holliday, came from behind to get in the winners’ circle with driver Mickey Holliday — Sherri’s son — getting the win on the first night at the Downs.
It was Magic Card’s fifth win in 17 races this year and Holliday was glad to get back out there on the Batavia dirt.
“It feels good, especially for me,” said Holliday. “I’m young and it’s really good for my parents. My mom works hard and she has her ready to go. It’s a good feeling to start the meet good.”
In the second race, a new face to Batavia found his way to a familiar place with the help of a 4-year-old Darrin Monti-trained gelding.
Driver Shawn Gray, fresh off a spectacular meet at the Buffalo Raceway in which he captured top-driver honors with an impressive 202 wins that obliterated the rest of the competition, didn’t take long to snag a winner.
With Need Help Here, Gray continued his hot streak with an impressive victory in his debut evening in Batavia.
And he didn’t wait long to get his second victory either.
In the fourth he stepped in for Dan Noble and took the reigns of Backbeat Hall and led the 10-year-old to an easy win as he took over near the halfway point and never looked back.
“I was really excited to race here,” said Gray. “The track is really nice, everyone has been really friendly and I was really looking forward to it.”
Gray would cap a solid first night with another win in the 10th as he led Bobsujak to a mild upset over Wild For You and His Aliben.
“It gets you excited,” said Gray about his Batavia debut and opening night. “It’s a new place and hopefully I can do some good and it will make it even better.”
Noble, though he may have missed out on the fourth, didn’t have to wait long to find his way to the circle.
North America’s leading dash winning harness driver in 2011 — and currently fourth this season — needed just two more races to pull in a winner.
Also making his Batavia Downs debut, Noble drove favorite Vijaysluck out of the first post to get his first career win in Batavia.
A 6-year-old gelding trained by local Alex Giuliani, Vijaysluck simply outclassed the rest of the field, which included 14-year-old Albagold — a 43-time victor and winner of almost $400,000 in career earnings.
Nobel made it two in a row as he captured the seventh with Mystical Made.
It was Mystical Maid’s first win in 17 career starts and Noble led the 4-year-old well past Gray and Lofty Dreams, as well as favorite Leo Vincent, who tired after a blistering start.
The most impressive — or maybe inspirational — win of the night came in the eighth.
With John Cummings Jr. driving, Optimist N captured his 73rd career victory in 219 starts.
A 13-year-old gelding trained by Carl Cummings, Optimist N was at least four years older than any other horse in the race and showed that he can still get it done.
Out of the first post and the favorite, Optimist N took advantage of a slow start, came on during the second half-mile and held on to win his fourth race of 2012 after he won 50 percent of his outings in 2011.
Morrill Jr., making a special appearance at Batavia Downs and who established records for most wins and earnings in a single season in 2006, picked up a win in the final race of the night with Artillery Major.
But for him its exciting to see the revitalization of the harness industry.
“The casino and slot money has helped us a lot,” said Morrill Jr. “The more money we race for, the more people are able to go out and upgrade their stock. Now we have better horses and better courses which makes for better races.”
But as trumpet played and the losing tickets fell to the ground on the first of 72 scheduled dates through September, the large crowd witnessed just the beginning of what should be an exciting 2012.
“It’s nice for people to support the sport,” said Holliday. “Harness racing is important to us, that’s how we make a living and it’s nice to see that people still like the sport.”