First day of winter meet in decades at Batavia Downs draws record wagering


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It was a good day for harness racing at Batavia Downs on Monday. It was cold.  But it was good.

Don Hoover, director of live racing, said that while patrons mostly huddled inside during the races, the turnout for the first night of winter racing at the Downs, in many decades, was strong.

“If you compare this to like Wednesday nights during the season, or regular racing, we have more people here than a typical Wednesday and people seem to be enjoying it,” Hoover said.

And they were betting.

“We’re only through eight races (at the time of the interview with The Batavian), but the handle looks good,” Hoover said. “I’m being optimistic right now because we still have races to go, but our total handle today could surpass any day of last year. It’s possible, but it’ll definitely be in the top five.”

Hoover’s prediction proved correct. Total wagers on for the evening were $257,510. That total was over $20,000 higher than any race card of 2022 and the best overall handle at Batavia Downs since 2019 when betting topped $339,000 during the New York Sire Stakes Night of Champions.

The winter meet came about, he said, because the Western New York Harness Horseman’s Association came to Batavia Downs and said the Buffalo Raceway said it wasn’t going to hold winter meets any longer. 

“They had a raft of cancellations (due to weather) last year,” Hoover said.

After some negotiations, Batavia Downs agreed to host two race events each week in January and February. Assuming drivers and trainers can get to the track on a winter’s day, Hoover said he thinks Batavia Downs is well-positioned to host the planned events.

“We have a great track crew,” Hoover said.”We bought some new equipment. We have a different starting gate if needed. So we’re hoping that the preventative measures we’ve taken will overcome the weather unless, you know, if we have blizzard conditions, nothing can overcome a blizzard.”

While Batavia has a bit of an advantage over Buffalo in terms of storm impacts, being further from Lake Erie, many of the race participants have to travel from or through the area to get to Batavia.  That could have an impact on races.

“The first time we canceled in November, we were fine here, but the problem was there was a travel ban,” Hoover said. “Many of the horsemen come from the Hamburg area, and there would have been no way for them to get here. Kevin Cummings, Jim Morrill, other drivers are coming from that area, so they couldn’t get here. So even though we’re not Buffalo, and we think the track will be in better shape, because we won’t have as extreme weather, we also have to factor in, ‘can the participants get here safely?'”

The 15-day session will run through Feb. 27 and operate on a Monday and Thursday schedule. Post time for each race day is set at 3 p.m. 

Hoover is optimistic this winter meet won’t be a one-and-done experiment.

“We have to see how it goes and see if it’s worthwhile doing it again,” Hoover said. “I mean, we’re committed for this year, and then we’ll, at the end of February, we’ll take a look at it and see how it worked out. But if you were going to ask me today how it’s working out, I’d say it’s working out great.”

See also: Stalbaum steals the show in Batavia Downs winter opener

Photos by Howard Owens. 

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Bad to the Bone, winner in the eighth.



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