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BUFFALO RACEWAY SEEKS PERMISSION TO SEND WINTER RACING OUT TO PASTURE

Put winter racing on ice at Buffalo Raceway.

In a move that could also have a major effect on Batavia Downs -- Western New York's other harness racing track -- the Raceway has announced plans to seek state permission to abandon winter racing while extending its warm-weather season and running during the Erie County Fair.

Raceway vice president/general manager Jerry Schweibel said that starting next year, the Hamburg track wants to present live racing through the entire summer instead of closing for the months of August, September and most of October. This means the Raceway would present pari-mutuel races during the Erie County Fair in August for the first time.

Such a move would also put the Raceway in conflict with Batavia Downs, which has traditionally had the lucrative August and September period to itself.

"I don't want to hurt anybody's business, but I have to do what's best for Buffalo Raceway," Schweibel said.

He described last winter's December-February meet -- the Raceway's 26th year of cold-weather racing -- as "three or four months of hell on earth" during which attendance plummeted and expenses far outweighed revenues.

"It's time to race our eight or nine or 10 months during the good weather. I can race during the fair next year. The big (Erie County Fair) board has voted on that. We can re-adjust our dates to meet competition and really do a job on this place."

Racing during the fair could help the track in both handle and exposure.

"I really feel with the change of dates, it could help us," Schweibel said. "Especially when you have 100,000 people on the grounds during the Fair. . . . It could put some people in here."

Schweibel said he's asked the State Racing and Wagering Board for an April-December season next year.

A decision is expected by the end of the year.

Schweibel said the Raceway plans to construct a winterized simulcast facility at the fair grounds. He said it would be a "Ridge Lea-type operation," modeled on the Western Region OTB's Amherst Turfside Complex on Ridge Lea Road, near Niagara Falls Boulevard, in Amherst.

Batavia Downs president Barbara Samberg said she would oppose any attempt to further cut her track's dates. Because of financial problems, Batavia in recent years has relinquished its spring and fall dates in March, April, October and November.

Although it presents out-of-town simulcasts year-round, Batavia's live racing has been reduced to a 12-week season, which starts today at 2:30 p.m.

"Historically those are our dates and have been for 'umpty ump' years," Samberg said. "We're not willing to sit back and hand our dates to Buffalo Raceway. . . . I just feel they're our dates."

There is nothing to stop both tracks from running at the same time, although they never have competed head-to-head.

Despite their conflict, both harness tracks seem united in an objection to Finger Lakes Race Track's recent request to be allowed to present thoroughbred racing at night, the harness tracks' traditional bailiwick.

Samberg said the state's harness tracks "all should throw our hats in the ring and stand up and fight for what we think should be ours."

"We already face competition from Casino Niagara, Off Track Betting and Indian gaming," Schweibel said. "The advent of night thoroughbred racing would seriously impact our live attendance and handle."

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