If you're going to the season opener at Buffalo Raceway on Friday night, don't forget to be an early bird. And you also might want to bring a few extra wagering dollars.
An hour-earlier start (6:35 p.m.) and a one-more-race card (13) are two of the major changes wrought by Jim Mango, the new chief operating officer, for the track's 64th year of harness racing.
The changes aren't being made capriciously. They're part of Mango's plan to improve the sport, and the business, at the Hamburg oval.
The early post time is part of an attempt to better compete with other tracks for the wagering dollars at simulcast outlets around the country.
"I'm trying to get the jump on everyone," said Mango, referring to the 7 to 7:40 p.m. starting times at other tracks.
Since he succeeded General Manager Simon Crawford last fall, Mango has concentrated on convincing many new simulcasting outlets (mostly off-track betting networks and other tracks) to take bets on Buffalo Raceway's races.
By offering the Raceway's signal at a deep discount (a fee of 1 percent of total handle instead of the usual 3 percent) Mango has corraled 43 customers, including all possible outlets in Maryland, Delaware, Maine, Ohio and Pennsylvania plus most of New Jersey.
"I did it because I want to increase our (betting) pool sizes," said Mango, a 53-year-old veteran of racetrack and sports book management in Maryland, Mexico and New York.
As he explained, the more money there is in the pari-mutuel pools, the less likely the odds will wildly fluctuate near post time.
"We're trying to increase pools sizes so when people bet $50 on a 2-1 shot, it doesn't change to 1-5," he said.
"I don't know if they're going to bet us, but we've now got a chance. We're going to do everything we can to make them bet us," Mango told a meeting of about 250 horsemen Monday night.
"It's a great idea," said Bruce Tubin, president of the Western New York Harness Horsemen's Association. "We'll be one of the first tracks up on the simulcast schedules. Hopefully, people will get to see our product and like it and stick with it."
Competition from casinos and the Internet has "absolutely slaughtered this place," said Mango, a Schenectady native who holds a master's degree in economics from SUNY Albany.
"There are 2 million people playing poker at any one time on the Internet in this country. Then there's all the sports wagering now on the Internet, which years ago people thought was illegal but now no one cares. . . . It's just been terribly damaging to the horse racing industry," he said.
Mango said the best way to attract more wagers is to offer more competitive and bettable racing.
"If we all go out there and race competitively, we've got a chance," he told horsemen.
In another effort to improve competition, Mango has also attracted several nationally known drivers and trainers from Ohio and Michigan. They include Ken Holliday, Keith Kash and Sam Schillaci from Cleveland's Northfield Park and Larry Lake, a top driver at Sports Creek Raceway in Michigan.
"In my opinion, the only way to improve the racing is by getting some of these new drivers here," Mango said. "Northfield has been successful because of the drivers. They drive like they're being chased by Satan himself. . . . They've been very successful because of the horsemen they've had on the track. . . . I'm looking for our racing to become very competitive."
With purse money reinforced by the 23-month-old slot machine casino, the Raceway's purses have been boosted to about $50,000 a night. At the top end, prize money for each week's richest "Invitational" trotting and pacing races will be $9,000 if the field contains at least seven horses ($8,000 if smaller.).
Racing will be conducted Fridays and Saturdays in February. Wednesdays will be added in March and Thursdays will be added in June. The season ends July 29.