The new horse racing season starts Friday at Buffalo Raceway. Don't worry if you haven't made reservations. There's plenty of room for you. More than plenty.
There once was a time when opening night at Western New York's oldest sports venue (the Hamburg track opened in 1942) was a major event on the local sporting scene.
Once the radio airwaves were filled with the catchy advertising jingle that started with the phrase "Where you going? Buffalo Raceway!"
Once the two newspapers in town each assigned reporters to write nightly chronicles of the activities at the track at the Erie County Fairgrounds.
Once the sports segment of the 11 p.m. TV newscasts wouldn't be complete without a mention of the night's winning daily double -- the numbers of the winners of the first two races and the payoff.
Once crowds of 12,799 and 12,576 jammed into the grandstand, clubhouse and infield to watch champion pacers Bret Hanover and Albatross, respectively.
Jerry Schweibel, the Raceway's current general manager, remembers being part of the crowd that saw Albatross set a speed record (a mile in 1:57 4/5 ) on July 8, 1972. Or trying to be part of it.
"I couldn't get in the place," Schweibel said. "They had 12,000 people to see him (Albatross). At that time he was OK, but he was no superstar. But they packed it because you had no other competition. . . . In the old days, that was the action, there was no other stuff going on."
But that was then and this is now.
Friday's crowd (first race is at 7:30 p.m.) probably will be counted in three digits, although no official tally will be made. The track removed its turnstiles several years ago, when it eliminated admission charges and other extra fees for reserved seats and clubhouse admission.
In recent years, most harness tracks and many thoroughbred tracks have stopped reporting on-track attendance. With more and more betting dollars placed off-track, managements feel turnstile counts have little meaning.
In 1979, Buffalo Raceway's average attendance was 3,087. By 1989, it had fallen to 1,810. A harness industry reference book reports the 1998 average at 782.
Meanwhile, Batavia Downs -- which for years alternated meets with the Raceway -- went out of business in 1998 after years of mounting financial troubles. The Downs -- which was founded in 1940 -- was purchased by Western Region Off-Track Betting Corp., which has unsuccessfully tried to obtain a state license to conduct live racing.
Friday's on-track crowd at Hamburg will probably bet around $54,571, the average nightly wagering figure for last year's 173-date season. It's a far cry from the record $602,831 that "Albatross crowd" wagered on that Saturday night in 1972.
A lot of things. All of which added up to increased competition for the gambling dollar, the recreational dollar, and the leisure time of Western New Yorkers.
Schweibel ticked off a few the other day in his office under the 5,000-seat grandstand.
Off-Track Betting. "OTB's been here since 1972," he said. "They're starting to build palatial places to go to. People live around the corner, they're going to go there. They're not going to drive 45 minutes to Buffalo Raceway."
Today, more than 70 percent of the money wagered on the Hamburg races is placed with OTB. Last year, an average of $129,142 per night was wagered on Buffalo Raceway races at OTBs across the state.
Lotteries. (Begun in New York in 1976.) "All this extra money that used to just come to Buffalo Raceway, or Batavia, or whatever track is going to other places. Before then, the track was the only legal gambling," Schweibel said.
Bethlehem Steel closed the nearby Lackawanna plant (1983). "They used to send runners over with close to $20,000 a night. They (plant employees) wanted to gamble. . . . That was before (the rise of) television," Schweibel said.
The impact of TV sports. "We all know everyone bets on these sporting events," Schweibel said. "In my day they showed one (game) a week, if you were lucky. Now every night of the week, there's a college game, there's a professional game. It's just an awful drain on your money. We attract a certain group that likes their action. All of a sudden our group is not there.
"What happened in this area is amazing," he said. "It's amazing there's still a Buffalo Raceway if you really think about it. . . . There's so much (sports on TV). You watch the news, there's so much sports on."
Casinos in Canada. "It didn't matter to me that the Niagara Casino was open. They have slot machines, craps. They took our bettors, no question. But when Fort Erie opened, as I always was afraid of, they had their simulcasting (of races from elsewhere). So now they have what I can't offer, the slots and horse racing."
The Internet: "You can get (printed) programs. You can get information. . . . You could stay home with your family and bet on Buffalo Raceway and I'll never see your face."
"This used to be a social event, the sport of kings," said Dennis R. Lang, chief executive and general manager of the Erie County Agricultural Society, the not-for-profit corporation that has owned the Raceway's state license for the past 10 years.
"People used it as a night of entertainment. They'd come to the race track and enjoy the evening out," Lang said.
"Now we don't do that. We're pulled in 14 different directions. Mom goes one way, dad goes the other way. You take the kid here, you take the kid there.
"This was all the entertainment we had," Lang said. "Now you've got how many different options each night? Somebody said there's about 23 different major entertainment venues each night. From hockey games to basketball games to college sports."
Despite the problems, Raceway officials say they have no plans to pull the plug. At least not yet.
"The agricultural end of the horse race business ties into the mission statement of the Agricultural Society like a glove to a hand," Lang said. "It affects so many farmers, blacksmiths, feed suppliers, equipment suppliers, and has an economic impact on the Town of Hamburg. It has a tremendous impact."
Lang said the Raceway "has been a challenge" to the society.
"Over the 10 years I've been on the board, the attendance has been in kind of a slide of about 10 percent a year. Handle has been (down) anywhere from 10 to 14 percent a year," he said.
"The race track is not warm and fuzzy like the (Erie County) Fair," he said. "The Fair is warm and fuzzy, mom and apple pie and Chevrolet. And Buffalo Raceway is a business, and like it or not, it's gambling."
Lang said that while the Agricultural Society is "committed" to the Raceway, "That does not mean that if somebody comes to us (with an offer to buy the operation) we wouldn't explore it."
He said "We're not searching anybody out. It's a business. You have to address every issue as it's presented to you. If somebody comes and wants to buy your house and you say no and they offer you a quarter of a million dollars and it was only a $100,000 house, you'd be pretty foolish if you didn't look at the business standpoint."
Schweibel said he's confident the Raceway -- which he said provides jobs to between 1,000 and 1,500 people, including trainers, grooms and others who are not direct employees -- can still survive by serving the sport's hard core of bettors.
Besides live racing, the track also derives income from the money wagered on afternoon and evening races simulcast from out-of-town tracks seven days a week. The Raceway's simulcasts are attractive to bettors because, unlike the state-run OTB parlors, no deductions are subtracted from payoffs. On live racing nights, simulcasts provide and increased variety of wagering opportunities and reduces the "down time" between live races.
"Our simulcasting improves dramatically when we're racing live," Schweibel said. "One feeds off the other. If you hit at Buffalo, you bet at the Meadowlands. . . . It's like Vegas. You got six or seven racetracks going. They enjoy that," he said.
"We didn't make money last year. But we feel here that we bottomed out. In 1998 we did very well, which was only a year ago," Schweibel said.
Despite the low on-track business of 1998 (when nightly attendance for race dates was estimated at 782), the Raceway turned a profit thanks to about $600,000 in OTB commissions from off-track wagers during the Saratoga thoroughbred season in July, August and September.
During the Saratoga season, state law prohibits OTB parlors throughout New York State from carrying out-of-state races in the afternoons. On Wednesdays and Thursdays that year, Buffalo Raceway was the only other track racing in the afternoon.
"We scheduled races in between the Saratoga races. And everyone was happy because it's an awful long day betting Saratoga when you have nothing in between," Schweibel said. "We learned what we missed all these years."
He said that the extra "Saratoga money" normally went to Batavia Downs, which state regulators shut down June 30. In 1999, even the "Saratoga money" was not enough to offset the red ink of live racing.
Since the track divides its income with the horsemen -- by way of deposits into the "purse account" -- the track's financial problems are reflected in the prize money available for the races.
For instance, the purses for tonight's 10 races will average $2,155 per race, with the minimum purse -- for the slowest class -- at $1,000. Over the years, the purses at Buffalo Raceway and other New York harness tracks have not kept pace with increases at neighboring jurisdictions, especially Ontario (where the tracks have slot machines) and Ohio and Pennsylvania (where the tracks, not the governments, operate the off-track betting systems.)
Attracted by higher purses elsewhere, some of the better trainer/drivers have moved away, as well as some of the owners.
"There's so many more high profile tracks out there that give more money out. These guys are going to go there if they can, if they have the horses," said Simon Crawford, Buffalo Raceway's assistant general manager/director of racing. "The better horses that we have will go to Northfield (in Cleveland) and Mohawk (in Campbellville, Ont.)
The slot-machine boosts in the purses at Fort Erie Race Track has even lured some trainers and owners away from harness racing into the thoroughbred sport.
"In the long run, the purse structure on those tracks (with slots) is going to go up and up and up and that's going to take away from our business," Crawford said.
"Even now you're losing Western New York owners," Crawford said. "They go buy a thoroughbred horse and they go try to race at Fort Erie. We've got three or four double owners right now. People who have always owned harness horses, who wouldn't even think of owning thoroughbreds. Now all of a sudden they own thoroughbred and they're racing at Fort Erie because they can make money."
Despite the problems, Schweibel says "I feel it (Buffalo Raceway) can survive. We have to be very specific in our marketing. We have to do our handicapping contests for the regulars. We have to start first with the regulars, the people who have supported us and come through the bad times. The new ones, we have to make sure we grab them off the Internet. That's where all the money's going to come from next."
Average Nightly Handle
Year On-Track NYS OTB Total
1990 $182,150 $180,609 $362,759
1991 162,923 163,706 326,629
1992 166,564 176,503 343,067
1993 139,460 177,362 316,822
1994 124,523 168,577 293,100
1995 127,041 205,054 332,095
1996 96,175 205,281 301,456
1997 72,558 187,761 260,319
1998 65,101 157,595 222,696
1999 54,571 129,142 183,713