BATAVIA — Ken Rumble had Monday circled on his calendar for months. The Stafford resident has been a harness racing fan for 40 years. On Monday he was back at Batavia Downs, watching the season-opener with about 1,000 other racing enthusiasts.
“It’s the sights, sounds and smells of the track,” Rumble said. “This is so much better than sitting in an OTB.”
Rumble expects to watch the horses race at least once a week until the season ends Dec. 8. He doesn’t drive to Buffalo Raceway — “too far.” The Western New York horsemen race in Hamburg from January through late July, before the action shifts to Batavia.
Rumble’s father took him to the Downs for the first time when he was 12. Rumble’s been hooked since, even coming when the sport faded in the 1990s, mired with shrinking purses and crowds.
Rumble said the sport has been saved with the transformation of the race tracks into casinos. Ten percent of the casino profits go to the racing industry, with 8.75 percent boosting purses and 1.25 percent going to a breeder’s fund. For the horsemen, that 10 percent represents about $4 million in casino revenue at Batavia annually.
“It’s good to see them back and that harness racing is healthy again,” Rumble said.
Ed Belica and Eileen Dee are part owners of three horses. They and three other friends entered the horse business five years ago after the sport recovered.
“Before you couldn’t afford to be in horse racing because the purses were so low,” said Belica of Hamburg. “Now you can hold your own. We just hope to break even.”
Dee of Alden starting coming to the track in 1966 with her late husband, Edward.
“We were diehard fans for many, many years,” she said.
She praised the Downs for working to bring crowds to the track through a series of promotions in the race season, including wiener dog races and other deals on food. The track gave away free programs on Monday.
The sport’s financial picture has certainly improved, but ultimately the fate will lie in drawing a new generation of racing fans, Belica said.
Monday’s crowd included many young adults, including 22-year-old Rob Hiscutt of Batavia. He was a regular at the track last year and intends to be a frequent visitor this year. Hiscutt said he has learned to read the racing program and make educated wagers.
He was joined by his friend, Chris Hinca Jr., 21, of Alexander. Hinca is a newcomer to the track. He laughed about some of the horse names, including Mr. Butterworth, Jimmy the Terror and Obey the Command.
He liked the laid-back atmosphere at the track.
“You only have to bet $2,” he said. “I’m not into high-stakes.”
Richard and Sandy Moy of Clarendon celebrated their 46th wedding anniversary on Monday. They hadn’t been to the track in years. They remembered when there were four or five horsemen from Clarendon and the town was home to three training tracks. Now there are none.
They also remember when the Downs was the place to be, packing 4,000 to 5,000 people on Friday and Saturday nights.
Monday was a far cry from that, but Mr. Moy, the Clarendon town supervisor, was impressed by the crowd.
“We just like to watch the horses,” he said. “But I’m surprised by all the people.”