When we thinkof New York racing, Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga roll off the tongue with ease. But, there is fourth thoroughbred track in the Empire State, in Western New York called Finger Lakes. And, contrary to what many think, it has no affiliation with NYRA; it is its own separate entity. It is also armed with video gaming machines, so even when the racing gathering is sparse, there is always a crowd at what is now called Finger Lakes Gaming and Racetrack
Comparing Finger Lakes to Saratoga is like comparing a Mercedes to a Chevrolet. Sure, they both run, but the quality of ride is vastly different. That said, Finger Lakes has been around since 1962 and certainly has its niche in the racing game. Most of the horses there have never had their day, have seen better days, or are somewhere in between. Perhaps its greatest horse was Fio Rito who went to Saratoga and captured the 1981 Whitney Handicap, a shocker to say the least, and for fans of the perceived ‘AA” race track, a memory for a lifetime.
The 2015 racing season opened on May 1 at the place nicknamed ‘The Thumb,” by the natives. And, because most of the horses there didn’t run over the winter, they ease them into racing slowly. The first couple of weeks are littered with 4 ½ furlong races so horses can race their way back into shape. As the days grow longer, they begin to stretch them out and ultimately; races will be run at longer distances. There is no turf course so all the races will be run on the dirt.
There have been some changes for 2015. The first was the later start date. In the past, the track opened on the third Saturday in April. That may have been due to the brutal winter or perhaps it was admitting that spring doesn’t really start in Western New York until May.
Finger Lakes also has a peculiar racing schedule. Once the warm weather is here in earnest, they will race on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday thru Saturday. They are dark on Sundays, which on the surface doesn’t seem like a good idea, but there are sound reasons for it. In the fall, it is very tough to compete with the Buffalo Bills. The Bills often generate local TV ratings of 40 percent, so keeping the track dark on football Sunday seems like a logical move. The other has to deal with on-track handle. Because the big tracks are open for business on the weekends, Finger Lakes’ handle suffers greatly. It is because of this fact that all stakes races with the exception of one have been moved to Fridays, away from the crowded weekends.
“Our handle drops significantly on Saturday and Sunday,” said racing secretary Bill Couch. “We did the numbers and it’s just tough to compete with Belmont, Saratoga, Churchill, Santa Anita and Del Mar on the weekends, so we made a move to correct that.
Unlike the big tracks, Finger Lakes is not chock full of major stakes races. Farmington is where the claimers run and where the feature allowance race might have a purse of $22,000. The biggest race, money wise on the calendar is the New York Breeders Futurity, a $200,000 six furlong affair for two year olds on Saturday, October 17.
Derby day is set for Friday, July 3. That’s right, the New York Derby, a race for three year old New York breds at 1 1/16 miles and a purse of $150,000. The Derby is the second jewel in the Big Apple Triple Crown that starts with the seven furlong Mike Lee at Belmont and ends with the 1 1/8 mile Albany Stakes at Saratoga. The fillies get their due on Independence Eve in the New York Oaks, also at 1 1/16 miles with a purse of $75,000.
The other big day is September 18 when the Lady Finger Stakes and Aspirant Stakes are contested for two year olds for purses of $100,000 each. The stakes schedule starts on May 29 with the Susan B. Anthony and the venerable George W. Barker Stakes, normally a Memorial Day tradition now scheduled for Friday, June 5.
If you follow Finger Lakes, be aware of Charlton “Charlie” Baker, a top notch trainer who has won several titles at the track. Last fall, Baker brought some of his horses to Aqueduct and was able to secure a stakes victory in the fall on Empire Showcase day.. Currently at Belmont, Baker will likely move some of his horses to Finger Lakes this summer. In 2014, Chris Englehart won the training title, followed by Michael Ferraro and Anthony Ferraro. The top jockeys were Jamie Rodriguez and Wilfredo Rohena, both of whom are back in 2015.
Finger Lakes is a racing fan’s racetrack. The amenities have improved and there isn’t a bad seat in the house, but it is a track for the true lover of the sport. The one great thing about FL is allegiance to certain horses. Because many of them return each year, a bond can develop. Clean Jean is a mare who certainly loves racing at the Thumb. Every time she wins, track announcer Tony Calo oftens says, “Clean Jean, she loves it at Finger Lakes,” and that sort of bond doesn’t always hold at the bigger–and better–racetracks. In four starts last year at Finger Lakes, “CJ” had three wins and a second. Calo also starts each race with “and there they go,” a familiar refrain for the patrons.
The casino has made the track much more desirable with a nice restaurant and some bars inside. Of course, there is simulcasting and live entertainment to keep you engaged when the racing ends. I was there last year for the Belmont Stakes to see if California Chrome could pull off the Triple Crown. On that day, the race crowd was good and the casino crowd even better and most stopped what they were doing to take in Chrome’s eventual unsuccessful attempt at racing immortality.
Finger Lakes is very easy to get to, just minutes off Exit 44 of the New York State Thruway and is located in the heart of wine country. An easy trifecta would be taking in some races, visiting the vineyards and checking out Sonnenberg Gardens in nearby Canandaigua. The racing schedule runs from May 1 through December 9. There is free admission which allows you to donate more of your hard earned cash at the betting window.
Until next time.