"Opening night, haven't missed it since I was 16 years old," said Bob Persia of Spencerport.
Persia and friend Tony Vasilovski of Henrietta were among the hundreds to cheer on the return of harness racing to Batavia Downs. "You're hanging out with friends and making some money," said Vasilovski.
That notion was almost scratched in the late 90's when Western Regional Off-Track Betting took Batavia Downs from closure. Seven years later in 2005 video slot machines arrived and changed everything. "Without gaming terminals right now I believe that Batavia Downs would probably be a parking lot," said track announcer Joe Zambito.
Instead revenues are soaring. In the last fiscal year, Batavia Downs Casino made just over $40 million, an increase of 8 percent from the previous year. There's been a ripple effect throughout the area. "It's not just harness racing," said Zambito. "We're talking about farms, we're talking about feed stores, we're talking about other restaurants, we're talking about hotels."
In April, the facility began a much needed $27 million renovation and expansion. The roof is currently being fixed, but the focal point of the project is the gaming center. The area will expand from the current 640 video gaming machines to 775 by next summer. "The whole gaming floor is going to be moved to the first floor with increased games, everything brand new and we think just a complete different entertainment destination than what our customers are used to," said Batavia Downs Casino Chief Operating Officer Mike Nolan.
Even as officials bring this current expansion to life, they're already imagining the next one. State leaders are considering allowing table gaming at racinos. Revenues at Batavia Downs could go up 60 percent according one projection. "If a constitutional amendment is passed we'll be on the cusp of probably an $88 million expansion at Batavia Downs Casino," said Nolan.
Although not everyone favors expanding live table gaming to New York's racinos, race fans at Batavia Downs see the benefit. "The slots certainly have helped get some money into the track so they can get better purses, they get better purses they get better horses and it's all going around and it's helping, so that's good," said Persia.
Batavia Downs is the oldest lighted harness racing track in America. It's also municipally owned, meaning a percentage of its revenues are shared among the 15 Western New York counties and the cities of Buffalo and Rochester.
For more information about the racing calendar at Batavia Downs, click here.