Although winter harness racing in the South Towns snow belt is no longer a novelty, the emphasis is on the "new" at Buffalo Raceway as the Hamburg track prepares to start its 20th freezin' season Wednesday night.
A new owner, a new general manager and an advertising campaign that pledges "We've got a new attitude" are attempting to spark a business turnaround in the face of the attendance and wagering declines that plagued the facility at the Erie County Fair Grounds last winter.
"I think you're going to see a noticeable difference in the way we treat our customers," said Bruce Munn, general manager. "It's a new attitude we are trying to build. Make the patrons . . . feel comfortable. Make them glad they came to Buffalo Raceway."
Munn sees the 57-date meet, which runs through Feb. 24, as "a big challenge for me." After 28 years in various posts at different tracks, this is the 57-year-old's first stint as a general manager.
"It's a good step for me and I don't have any qualms about being able to do the job," said Munn, who most recently spent 13 years as race secretary at Monticello Raceway in the Catskill Mountains.
One difference many patrons will notice is the new price in the parking lot, where the tab has been increased to $2. Last year, the charge was 75 cents for general parking and $1.25 for preferred.
"I'm sure we're going to get a lot of adverse commment," Munn said. "We do want to make some money to keep the track going and help raise the purses, and we just decided to go with $2 parking."
Munn said other basic charges -- including $2 general admission, an extra $1 for clubhouse admission, and $1.50 programs -- remain the same.
The track also is selling a $30 "Inside Track" membership, which includes parking, clubhouse admission and other premiums for the winter and summer meets.
Munn was hired about two months ago after the Raceway's business was purchased for $1.2 million by its landlord, the non-profit Erie County Agricultural Society, from Delaware North Companies Inc., owner since 1968. (Delaware North's Sportservice Corp. subsidiary still operates the food and drink concessions.)
Delaware North said the track, which also runs a summer meet from April through July, had lost money for the past three years.
Last winter's meet -- which, according to track superintendent Gary Wolff, suffered no weather-related cancellations -- drew average on-track attendance of 1,329, down about 6.7 percent from the previous year while total handle, both on and off-track, fell about 5.6 percent to $367,718.
The new owner wasted no time in making capital improvements at the Raceway, which will celebrate its 50th birthday as a pari-mutuel facility on June 12, 1992.
The biggest investment is a $325,000 renovation of the clubhouse dining room, including a new entrance and elevator. The dining room is scheduled to be completed by opening night, but the elevator will not be ready for another two weeks.
"The public's going to be really surprised when they see it. It's been done completely over from top to bottom. The ceilings, light fixtures, carpeting are all completely new," Munn said.
The elevator "is going to be helpful to the elderly people," said Sal Pelligrino, secretary-treasurer of Local 4 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union, which represents workers in the dining room, food stands and other locations.
"I believe the New Attitude program is going to help. I'm not saying Sportservice didn't try. They tried everything that was possible. . . . But these people that own it now, they are going to invest and I'm sure with the combined effort of my local and Local 200 (Service Employees Union representing mutuel clerks), we will make it successful," Pelligrino said.
Another change is the dropping of a three-season ban of drivers Gaston Guindon and James McNeight. Munn's predecessor, Jerry Monahan, had not welcomed them since they drove in a questionable trifecta race in January 1988.
"They've paid their punishment," Munn said.
"We all make mistakes. I believe in punishment, but I don't believe in keeping a guy down the rest of his life," Munn said. He said he also refused requests from two other unnamed banished drivers who also sought permission to return.
Guindon, 52, had been one of the leading harness drivers in Western New York. In his 22 years in the sport before the suspension, he had won 2,477 races, and his horses had collected purses of more than $5.2 million. Guindon, who reined 35 winners and earned about $95,000 at the just-completed summer-fall meet at Batavia Downs, declined comment.
The winter racing highlight will be the $36,000 "Winterfest Series" of Saturday night paces in January and February.
Open to 5-year-olds and younger who have not won two races or $5,000 through Dec. 31, the filly series features two $4,000 legs on Jan. 19 and 26 followed by a $10,000 final on Feb. 2. The males meet in similar prelims on Feb. 9 and 16 with the final on Feb. 23.
Race secretary Peter Koch also said the usual Winter Championships for the top claiming horses in various divisions will be contested the final weekend. Horses earn points toward the championships all through the meet.
Other plans call for Friday and Saturday seminars conducted by special events coordinator Jerry Schweibel, Friday night "Betting Spree" contests and the popular Saturday night Pick-6 jackpot contest on the third through eighth races. The jackpot starts at $1,000 and grows by $1,000 each week there is no winner.
Opening night ceremonies feature Hamburg Town Supervisor Jack Quinn throwing out the "first horseshoe," and a public congratulations to the 17 local co-owners of Bay's Fella, recent winner of the Breeders' Crown aged horse pace at Pompano Park.
Asked about what time of day he planned to make an open or close decision in event of bad-weather, Munn said, "I don't know if there's going to be any specific deadline. We do have a considerable high percentage of shippers, horses that aren't stabled on the grounds that have to ship in from miles away. We have to let them know soon enough so they can cancel and not be on the way by the time we do cancel."