The temperature was a frigid 16 degrees at Buffalo Raceway Friday night, but for harness horse driver Ron Beback Jr. and trainer Mike Wallace, nothing could have felt better.
"It feels good just to be back," said Beback as he posed in the winner's circle behind Magic Angel, the 7-year-old pacing mare who had just won the first race of the Buffalo Raceway season before an opening night crowd estimated at 1,075.
Wallace, known around the track as "The Professor," gleefully pointed out that, for the moment at least, he -- a two-horse stable operator from East Aurora who had won one race at Hamburg in 1999 -- was "the leading trainer and owner of the new millennium."
Magic Angel ($5.40) had not raced since Dec. 17, the night before the track closed for a six-week holiday break.
Wallace said the secret of getting her ready for her victorious mile (in 2:03 2/5 ) was "hard work, hard damn work."
"My goal was to win with this mare on opening night," Wallace said.
"I got very lucky. I got a good trip, a good drive, worked hard, had a nice horse," said Wallace, who described himself as "just a guy trying to pay his bills."
Magic Angel, who earned half of a $2,400 purse, was one of eight winners on the 10-race card who had not competed over the hiatus.
But SJ Photo ($3.40) and Threepercent ($5.70), the two winners who had raced elsewhere during December and January, were the night's most impressive victors.
SJ Photo, driven and trained by Jim McNeight, last year's local training champion, romped from the No. 8 post in a 2:03 4/5 mile in the featured $4,200 open trot handicap.
"He's something else," said McNeight, who had campaigned the 8-year-old gelding three times this month at Flamboro, Ont., for owner Mike Calimeri of Falconer.
"He was pretty tight. The others hadn't raced in six weeks," McNeight said.
Fastest mile of the night was the 2:02 3/5 dash posted by Threepercent ($5.70) with Dave Dylo at the controls.
The 7-year-old wired the field in the $3,200 open pace for females, finishing the second half in a quick 1:00 2/5 .
A week earlier the mare -- trained by Barry Dodge for owner William Seifert of Grand Island -- finished second as a beaten favorite at Yonkers.
Darrin Monti, who won with On The Hop ($6.90) and Chef Hanover ($8.70), was the only driver to win two races.
Brookstone Stud ($10.40) -- who closed the 1999 season in an accident in which he dumped his driver, crashed through a fence and got stuck in a snowbank outside the clubhouse turn -- made amends by winning in 2:02 4/5 for driver Lou Russo and trainer Anthony Masella. It was the 6-year-old gelding's first start since the Dec. 18 incident.
The newest racing member of the McNeight clan, provisional driver Edward McNeight, made his Raceway debut in the first race.
The 19-year-old is the son of the former Raceway driver/trainer team of Ed McNeight Jr. and Laurie McNeight and the nephew of Jim McNeight.
He finished second in the first race with Brookecrombie, a 6-year-old mare who had been racing for Ed and Laurie at the Meadows, near Pittsburgh.
New track announcer Scott Ehrlich, formerly of Saratoga Raceway and The Red Mile in Lexington, Ky., began his stint as substitute for Mike Sapovits, who is in Buffalo General Hospital recovering from bypass surgery earlier this week.
Through the end of February, the Raceway will present live racing on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m.
Thursdays will be added in March. The stakes season starts with the March Madness series on March 4.