While Buffalo Raceway doesn't quite rival Pompano Park and Santa Anita as capitals of winter horse racing, the start of the Hamburg harness track's 20th winter meet looked like a vacation cruise to two warmly named equine tourists Wednesday night.
Despite a stiff breeze and 30-degree temperatures, pacers named Hawaiian Lio and Ocala Lone Ranger -- both visitors from Vernon Downs, near Syracuse -- scored impressive wins before 1,302 first nighters.
Hawaiian Lio, driven by trainer Chris Lawton, first served notice that Vernon alumni might be major forces at the Raceway's 57-date season. He dominated the second race despite spending most of his 2:06 mile parked in a tough spot outside of pace-setter Set Aglow.
Hawaiian Lio paid $6.40 and -- coupled with Money Mark, Don Rothfuss' $9 winner in the first race -- completed the first daily double of the season, a 1-5 combination worth $29.80.
Ocala Lone Ranger, driven by Tom Swift for trainer Debra Slack, won the third race by about as far as you can throw a snowball as he pulled away in 2:04 3/5 and paid $11.20.
Both wins came in races for $3,000 claimers, a class in long supply on the first night of racing under the new ownership of the Erie County Agricultural Society. Five of the 11 races were for that lowest claiming level.
Following a major ad campaign promoting the track's "New Attitude," attendance was 239 fewer than last year's Wednesday winter kickoff.
Jerry Schweibel, special events coordinator, pointed out that last year's opener was heavily attended by members of the Hamburg Chamber of Commerce. Attendance at OTB and Batavia Downs simulcasts also was believed to be dampened Wednesday because of a TV transmission problem.
"If you have any complaints, please tell me about them. If you are having a good time, tell me too," new general manager Bruce Munn urged fans in prerace ceremonies.
Munn said workers labored until 5:15 p.m. putting the finishing touches on the renovations in the upper clubhouse dining room, where about 300 people enjoyed the new beige, blue and red color scheme.
Opening ceremonies concluded with the arrival of two limos carrying many of the 19 members of Par Birdie Stable, owners of Bay's Fella, pacing hero of the Breeders' Crown at Pompano Park, Fla., last month.
Purchased for $12,000, Bay's Fella -- who won the Crown's race for aged males in a lifetime best 1:52 1/5 -- has won about $750,000 in the past four years for the group of local golfers.
Although their horse was absent, a display containing his trophies and championship blanket graced the lobby.
The featured "Bay's Fella Appreciation Race," a $2,300 event for $8,000 claimers, was won by the Rothfuss-driven long shot Freddie's Skipper. Trained by Al Mariacher, the 8-year-old followed the rapid pace set by Swank Toliver A, Furthermore, and Adadot before drawing off by 3 1/4 lengths in 2:00 3/5 on a good track.
Two notable streaks were snapped. Sal T Collins' five-race win skein ended when the T.J. Mulcahy-driven gelding got a slow start and couldn't catch Bando Scarlet ($5) in the eighth race. It was the night's second Swift/Slack winner and the middle horse in Swift's three-bagger, which he completed by taking the 11th with Rotary Motor N ($5.)
Ron Wittenberg's Dirt Digger ($6.20) broke a 31-race losing streak in the fifth race by winning for the first time in his two-year career in 2:08 1/5 , slowest time of the night.