BATAVIA, N.Y. — They’re not used to racing in the dead of winter at Batavia Downs. The Western New York harness racing track appears to have found a recipe for success in an industry that’s faced years of struggle.
On race day at the oldest lighted harness racing track in North America, Don Hoover can be found in his office, watching the action at other tracks and watching the clock. Part of his job as director of live racing includes scheduling post times around the other tracks, so his track can maximize wagering opportunities.
“With so many options for the wagering dollar,” explained Hoover. “We try to keep ourselves in that mix.”
As an industry, harness racing is in decline. Total money handled was down 8.5% at U.S. tracks in 2022. But on back-to-back Mondays during Batavia Downs first winter racing series in years, the track had its two best betting days in two decades — counting in-person, online and simulcast betting.
“To keep it in context with what was going on all over North America, Batavia was ahead of the curve,” said Hoover. “So that's encouraging.”
“This track is home,” said racer Drew Monti. “It's a track I'm very familiar with. Got a lot of good memories.”
Monti grew up around harness racing. His parents met at a track. Monti has won more than 2,000 races — including a few more on this particular day. Bigger purses and bigger fields benefit everyone, he says.
“It's everything,” said Monti. “I mean, everything they do reflects on us. We really work hand in hand with everybody involved, and we want to put a good product out there. And they want to have a good facility. We all have a part in that.”
Hoover says any success at New York’s harness tracks would not be possible without the casinos attached to them.
“There are seven harness tracks in New York state,” he said. “Without the gaming, chances are that maybe one of those seven would still be operating, or maybe none of those seven would still be operating.”
The winter harness racing series at Batavia Downs runs through the end of February. The track and casino also hosts concerts, conventions, a brew fest and other events throughout the year.
Bringing harness racing to its past glory of the 60s, 70s and 80s is the biggest challenge. This track appears to be on the right track.