BATAVIA — Eerie was certainly a way to describe Wednesday night’s opener at Batavia Downs.
As has been well-documented, the start of the 74th season at America’s oldest lighted harness track took off without fans, with the gaming floor still closed and the overall amount of horsemen and workers well below normal numbers.
However, Director/General Manager of Live Racing Todd Haight was trying to keep things positive as the first races of the season went off.
“We’re off to a good start and the betting has seemed brisk, so we’re happy to see that,” Haight said. “We’re glad racing is back, of course, we’ve been doing this for 74 years but we miss not seeing our loyal customers in the grandstand, however, and we miss not having our gaming floor open and hopefully we’ll get that back soon.”
In comparison to recent seasons, Haight estimated that at least 1,500 fans were not in attendance, while the close to 1,000 programs were not printed and roughly $30,000 in track handle was lost.
For the diehards, though, there are still plenty of ways to get your gambling fix for the races at The Downs.
“There’s really three options,” Haight said. “You can go to any Western Regional OTB branch, there’s 16 open currently, you can go to any EZ Bet location, there is currently 22 in Western New York or you can bet online at Bataviabets.com, where you can get paid to play and there’s a rewards program; you can go to any OTB right after you win and get paid. With Bataviabets.com you get paid immediately.”
As for the racing, absent a crowd and the usual fanfare, the horses showed up and took full advantage of a lightning fast track.
A pair of $10,000 Open events headlined the card and the winner of each took a new seasonal mark for their efforts.
In the Open I trot, Il Mago (Jim Morrill Jr.) proved he was the best on the grounds this week after making every step from gate to wire a winning one.
Morrill shot Il Mago off the gate and to the front and the race could have been called at that point. Trotting like a loose horse on the point, Il Mago went quarters of :28.1, :57.1 and 1:26 flat, while extending his lead at each station. With only Chuckabuck (Drew Monti) remotely close, Il Mago was up by 3-1/2 at the top of the stretch and rolled home in front by 4-1/4 in 1:56.3.
It was the third win in the last four starts at three different tracks for the classy Il Mago ($2.80) who now has 49 career wins and $869,373 in earnings. The son of Kadabra-Northern Style is owned by Mike Torcello and trained by Gerry Sarama.
The fillies and mare Open I was also contested Wednesday and Julio’s Girl (Dave McNeight III) upset the apple cart for the second straight week.
HP Sissy ( Jim Morrill Jr.) left best and Lady London (Ray Fisher Jr.) followed while the rest of the field followed in post position order. After HP Sissy got to the half in :56.3, McNeight pulled Julio’s Girl first over entering the third turn and started the outside grind toward the leader.
After a quarter mile in the breeze, Julio’s Girl got even with HP Sissy at the top of the stretch and then paced clear down the lane to win by a length in 1:54.2, holding off a late rush from Protect Blue Chip (Billy Davis Jr.) and Gia’s Surreal (John Cummings Jr.) in the process.
After returning $33.60 in victory last week, Julio’s Girl blew up the tote board again in her seventh win of the year and rewarded her backers with $35.20 this week at Batavia. Julio’s Girl is owned by William Emmons and is trained by Jim Clouser Jr.
Jim Morrill Jr. Had the hot hand in the bike on opening night, scoring a grand slam during the evening. Besides the already mentioned Il Mago, Morrill also won with Lyra (1:55.2, $4.90), Leaderofthepack (1:59.4, $4.00) and Edom Up Blue Boy (1:58.4, $2.30).
Dave McNeight III and Billy Davis Jr. also had productive nights, getting three wins each on the card.
Trainers Gerry Sarama and Jim Clouser Jr. led all conditioners with two wins apiece.
Racing resumes at Batavia Downs on Friday with post time at 5 p.m.
“The light at the end of the tunnel is that we’re going to keep racing until the fans will be allowed back and we can get that gaming floor open and get our in-person count to where it needs to be,” Haight said. “It can only go up from here.”
For Haight, a usually exciting night was somewhat of a somber one, and hopefully one that he won’t have to do again.
“It’s disappointing. It was very sad,” he said. “I look forward to seeing the same people we’ve seen since 2002 for every opening night. They text me and they e-mail me but unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to see them. There’s also the clubhouse, this is the first time that the clubhouse hasn’t been open on opening night and normally it would be sold out. It’s just a sad situation but this is a pandemic and we’re going to get through it.”