Yes, horse racing has returned to Hamburg.
But it's the driver racing that has made things exciting for the Happy Handicapper and his fellow horseplayers through the first few days of the new season at Buffalo Raceway.
Driver skills have always been a very important part of the formula in trying to pick winners at half-mile harness tracks.
But ever since the sensationally talented Jim Morrill Jr. burst on the scene at Batavia Downs (where he won more than 41 percent of his races last fall), the game has radically changed for Western New York horseplayers.
Now, it seems, the first thing most players do when they look at the lineup for a race is check which horse Morrill is driving. As experience has taught them, factors such as class, speed, post position, breeding and trainer seem far less important when "Jimmy Mo" sits in the sulky. Morrill's horse is usually the one to beat -- and the one to bet, if you don't mind taking low odds.
At least, that's the way things looked at the start of opening night as Morrill's horses won the first two races and took five of the first seven.
Morrill's win payoffs ranged between $3.80 and $5.80, and the H.H. and other players looking for longer shots started thinking, "Oh, no. Here we go again."
But wait. As the weekend's races rolled on, a new fact of horseplaying life began to surface.
Morrill didn't win every race. Other drivers showed up in the winner's circle to get their pictures taken by track photographer Paul White. The toteboard lit up with winners paying $30.40, $28.40 and $22.20. There was a $233 late double (the H.H. even had it) connecting two races where Morrill finished out of the money in both.
Whaddya know? Morrill (who won nine races) is human after all.
The other drivers winning races were mostly named Kenneth "Doc" Holliday and Keith "Josh" Kash Jr., two Cleveland hot shots Jim Mango Jr., the new chief operating officer of the raceway, has imported to make the local sport more competitive.
So far, it's working. Holliday won seven races on opening weekend and Kash took three.
(Defending champion Kevin Cummings also drove three winners, while John Cummings Jr., his older brother who was runner-up last season, had two winners.)
As the new Big Three shot to the top of the standings, some alert horseplayers started to figure out that if you box them in the exacta, you have a good chance of coming home with a profit. The Morrill-Holliday-Kash exacta box has clicked seven times, topped by payoffs of $67, $47.40 and $36.60.
"I couldn't be more pleased with the driving, especially as it relates to Morrill and Holliday," said Mango. "In Morrill, Holliday and Kash, they've won just about every race. It's very exciting. I believe, as I've always believed, that we needed a couple of new drivers in here, some new blood. Especially a couple that had national exposure as they do. And I believe wholeheartedly that it's going to get better if these guys keep driving the way they're driving."
Aside from the upheaval in the driver ranks, opening weekend also produced outstanding performances by three pacing horses. Yes, horses:
* An Apple A Day, a 6-year-old Morrill-driven mare trained by Marion Singleton for Robbin Hill of Fredonia, battled a rival through a 58 4/5 -second first half and then pulled away for a two-length win in 1:58 4/5 , an amazing time over the snow-covered track.
* Western Prize, a 3-year-old colt that David Krol of Alden purchased for $26,000 at auction in New Jersey last month, earned back $1,300 by romping to a 17 3/4 -length win in 1:59, with Morrill driving, for his first career win.
* Dr Stewart, a 9-year-old gelding from the Holliday stable, easily won the new season's fastest mile (1:57) and richest ($8,000) race, defeating the Morrill-driven El Paso Hanover, the Raceway's all-ages record-holder (1:54 in 2005), by three-quarters of a length.
In a noteworthy change, the horses in the weekly Open Handicaps will be assigned post positions based on the earnings in their last five races, not on racing secretary Joe Zambito's estimate of their abilities. The horse earning the most last-five dollars gets stuck out in the outside post.
"We're trying some new things," Mango said. "We've also talked about experimenting with some longer races, maybe a mile and a quarter, maybe three-quarters."
One helpful new thing already in place is the listing in the program of how much money each horse in every race has earned in its last five starts.
Most of the everyday races are for horses that may be claimed (purchased) for a certain price. However, most races also are open to nonclaimers that have not won more than a certain amount of money in their last five starts.
For instance, a $5,000 claiming race is also open to nonwinners of $1,500 in the last five, and a $10,000 claimer is also open to nonwinners of $2,500 last five.
Until this year, players using the official program had to do their own math to figure out the last-five earnings. But now it's right there in black and white, right next to the name of the driver.