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Weekends at Raceway in jeopardy

Ever since Buffalo Raceway opened on a Friday night in 1942, weekend nights have provided the Hamburg track with its biggest and most profitable crowds.

But as the 2007 meet approaches, the track's top executive has raised the possibility that because of continued declines in business, the new season -- which opens Friday with a 13-race card at 6:30 p.m. -- might be the last to feature live racing on Friday and Saturday nights.

If attendance and wagering on the track's races keep dwindling, Chief Operating Officer Jim Mango says he "would definitely explore" switching the race schedule to a new "niche," possibly on weekday afternoons when fewer competing tracks are on television.

"I'm not saying we're going to do that," Mango said. "I'm saying that it has to be looked at. . . . Live harness racing is not gathering new people."

On-track wagering for last year's February-through-July meet slid to an average of $36,615 per night, down 8 percent from 2005. (At Batavia Downs, the season ended Dec. 2 and produced average wagering of just $34,502, down 17 percent from the year before.)

The great bulk of wagering everywhere in harness and thoroughbred horse racing comes from off-track locations, where the races are viewed on television or computer screens.

However, on weekend nights, Buffalo Raceway must compete with the bigger, richer tracks -- topped by the Meadowlands, Woodbine and Yonkers Raceway -- which feature the sport's top horses, drivers and stakes races.

"It's my opinion, based on what we're doing . . . it is what it is and it [live attendance and handle] is never going to dramatically improve. It just is what it is. It's the nature of the sport," Mango said.

The solution, he said, may lie in finding a less competitive simulcast time slot.

"A lot of the harness tracks our size are trying to find that niche in the simulcast world," Mango said.

"Let's say if we increase our [simulcast] handle by $200,000 a day [in a new time slot]. At 3 percent [commission on handle paid to the Raceway], that's $6,000 a day of revenue. Multiplied by 85 days, that's $510,000 revenue."

Mango's vision of the possible future is apparently opposed by horsemen.

"Don't ask me about Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. I won't comment," said Bruce Tubin, president of the Western New York Harness Horsemen's Association, which represents owners, trainers and drivers.

"We're racing for good money. The horsemen are able to make a living," said Tubin, who pointed out that -- with about 80 percent of prize money provided by the slot machine casino -- the average purse per race is about $4,200.

"On-trackwise it's very difficult to compete with the casinos. If we weren't surrounded by casinos, our average purses would be closer to $8,000. But we are, and I think we're going great considering our location," Tubin said.

Friday's opening is three weeks earlier than last year. They said the change is intended to shorten the local layoff (Batavia Downs closed Dec. 2) and add extra weekend nights.

"The horsemen had great weather to train their horses. They're raring to go. . . . We're ready to go with good horses and good races," Tubin said.

Mango expects the opening weekend crowds to be boosted by some 75,000 "mystery voucher" coupons (worth between $2 and $500) mailed to casino and track patrons.

Wednesday nights will be added on Feb. 14 and Sunday matinees will take place in July. The season ends July 28.

e-mail: rsummers@buffnews.com

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