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Buffalo Raceway set to open 69th season

Buffalo Raceway opens for its 69th season of live harness racing Friday night. This year the track will feature increased purses fueled from monies generated by the new Hamburg Casino, which opened last August.

The purses will be increased by 10 percent, "resulting in purses ranging over $70,000 in overnights," Chief Operating Officer James Mango said.

Mango, who oversaw 18 Preakness Stakes while managing tracks in Maryland earlier in his career, is excited about the 2011 racing calendar.

"We have 450 horses on the grounds, and could have had 700, if we had the stalls," Mango said.

Patrons of the half-mile track will notice improvements made during the fall, including a new LED digitized tote board.

Opening weekend at the Hamburg oval will feature drink specials, free giveaways and free programs for horseplayers. The programs will include lucky numbers that will make the winners eligible for free wagers every race. Post time is 6:40 p.m.

The meeting will run Fridays and Saturdays until Jan. 26, when Wednesdays will be added. In June, Sunday afternoon cards will commence through the end of the meet, July 24.

Racing secretary and track announcer Robin Burns will be plenty busy scheduling 13 races a night. Burns, who has called races at tracks all over the country, including Laurel, Pimlico, Hollywood Park and Presque Isle, promises to continue such popular series as the Niatross Knockout, the Bret Hanover, and the Albatross Knockout, according to public relations director Sam Pendolino.

In October, more than 600 tons of material was added to the racing surface as part of more than $250,000 of renovations made to the facility. Maintaining the track surface in Buffalo's harsh winter conditions requires constant attention from the track's superintendent. In addition to the track surface improvements, the clubhouse underwent extensive renovations that included new carpeting, paint and the addition of flat screen televisions.

As recently as New Year's Eve, one of Buffalo Raceway's most popular horses to race, Boomer Berman, was featured on ESPN by frequent Buffalo backer Chris "Boomer" Berman. A clip of one of the horse's 13 wins during 2010 was part of "The Two Minute Drill" segment of SportsCenter hosted by Berman.

Boomer Berman completed the final year of his racing career at age 14, winning 35 percent of his starts and hitting the board 30 times in 37 starts (81 percent) in collecting almost $59,000 in purse money. These numbers propelled him to being selected the 2010 Upstate New York Harness Writers Association Horse of the Year.

Boomer Berman's primary driver, Jack Flanigen, returns to defend his 2010 title as leading driver. Flanigen dominated last year's meeting with 197 victories, 37 more than his closest competitor.

Buffalo Raceway's leading 2010 trainer was Sheri Holliday, winner of 69 races, who narrowly edged out runner-up Bob Gruber (65).

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Gene Kershner is a Buffalo-based turf writer and handicapper who blogs at equispace.blogspot.com. He blogs every Friday at the Sports, Ink blog at buffalonews.com and can be found on Twitter (@EquiSpace).

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