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Morrill's magic is taxing bettors

As super driver Jim Morrill Jr. weaves his magic, it's become a lot easier to pick winners at Buffalo Raceway. It's also a lot harder to make a profit at the Hamburg harness oval.

Want to cash a ticket? Just back Morrill.

Take last Saturday night, for instance. "Jimmy Mo" won six of his 11 starts.

Making money is another thing. Big payoffs are hard to come by.

Morrill's six Saturday winners -- whose payoffs ranged from $2.50 to $3.80 -- paid an average of $3.33 for a $2 win bet. If you'd put a deuce on each of his mounts, you would have lost $2 by the end of the night.

"The Morrill situation is a double-edge sword," said Jim Mango, the Raceway's new chief operating officer. "He's a star that gives us notoriety and kind of puts Buffalo Raceway on the map.

"On the other hand, when it comes to betting at this facility, the fact that he's on the favorite every race, not just the favorite or the even money favorite, but 1-to-2 and 1-to-5 . . . people are having difficulty betting our races."

Mango, a veteran racetrack executive, said "I've never been to a track that had 60 percent [winning] favorites."

He exaggerates slightly. But thanks to Morrill, favorites have won 53.6 percent (104 of 194) of the races through last Saturday, which is still an amazing rate. And Morrill, with 77 wins, 38 seconds and 10 thirds in 161 starts, is North America's top percentage driver with a Universal Driver Rating batting average of .630.

But Morrill's phenomenal rate of success may not last forever. There's the possibility of a procedure change that might make his life a bit more difficult.

Morrill frequently is named by trainers to drive up to five horses in a race. Then after the post-position draw he (as do other multiple-named drivers) gets to study the past performances and choose the horse he thinks is best. (At the thoroughbreds, by contrast, each jockey must be assigned before the draw.)

As Mango put it, "You're dealing with a half-mile track and a driver who's so much better and he has the choice of taking one of the inside posts."

Mango recalled that "At Yonkers years ago with [hot driver] Walter Case, they changed the rule to name your mount before the draw."

Mango said he's been asked about a possible rule change "about a dozen times in the past two weeks." But for the moment, no change is planned.

"I'm not going to make a knee-jerk reaction," Mango said. "I can't say that I'm not concerned but I'm not going to make a knee-jerk reaction."

Fans can meet and greet Morrill in the clubhouse April 7 at 5:30 p.m. It's the first of a new Friday night series of driver seminars. He'll be followed in April by Ken Holliday, Kevin Cummings and Keith Kash Jr.

>Big claim, big plan

Trainer John Cummings Sr. and partner Vincent Pattronagio made the biggest claim of the season last Saturday when they forked over $18,750 to take Another First from the 12th race. It was the first time the 4-year-old pacer -- formerly trained and part-owned by Jim Graham -- was dropped in for a price tag.

Cummings said he bought the New Jersey-bred son of Rustler Hanover because "he fits the [Chautauqua] Series" that starts April 5.

The series -- consisting of two $4,500 preliminary races and a $12,500 final -- is open to younger pacers that had not won $25,000 as of March 15. Another First came in just $628 under that cutoff.

"He's a nice horse," Cummings said of the pacer who set a 1:58 3/5 career mark at Batavia Downs last year. "By the time the series is over, we'll be happy to get half our money back."

>'Sammy' set for Madness

Graham says Meigs Noble Sammy will be ready to make amends for last week's mistake when he races in tonight's $9,000 final of the March Madness series for males.

"He was just kind of skittish," Graham said of the break in stride "Sammy" -- the 3-to-5 favorite -- made for Morrill in the first turn of Saturday's $4,000 second leg of the series. "Hopefully he'll be on his game again."

His major competition will again be Western Prize, who took advantage of the break and won in 1:58 1/5 . In the previous week's opening leg, Western Prize was runner-up by 1 1/2 lengths as Meigs Noble Sammy won in 1:59.

>Schedule suggestions

Mango is toying with the idea of moving first post time to 4 p.m. for Wednesday and Thursday cards when Thursdays are added to the schedule in June. He's also thinking of adding afternoon matinees on Saturdays. He welcomes suggestions in person or at jmango@buffaloraceway.com.

e-mail: rsummers@buffnews.com

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