BY JOHN THEALL Sports writer


AT THE STARTING GATE — Horses and drivers follow the starting gate during qualifying action at Vernon Downs last week. Opening night of the track’s 59th harness racing season is set for Thursday. The 90-race season runs until Nov. 3. (Sentinel photo by John Clifford)

DOWN THE STRETCH — The trotter Table Games, driven by Roman Lopez, paces to the front on his way to a win in a qualifying race at Vernon Downs last week. The 90-race season opens on Friday night with a 6:55 p.m. post time. (Sentinel photo by John Clifford)

VERNON — There will be a different feeling at the historic Vernon Downs race track this season as the 59th Vernon Downs harness racing season is set to commence on Friday night.

With an adjusted 90-race card season schedule to be more accommodating to fans looking to avoid the colder Upstate New York weather at the bookends of the racing season, the elevated stake races that the Miracle Mile has attracted this season, and the announcement that two major concerts will take place at the track including the chart-topping group "America" set to perform on Thursday, July 5, and "The Boss," Bruce Springsteen, to conduct a leg of his current "Wrecking Ball" tour on Wednesday, August 29.

On the track, opening night will feature a 10-race card beginning with a 6:55 p.m. post time. There will be promotional giveaways, and the racing card will be followed by a fireworks display. The racing season will run through until Nov. 3.

"We are fast forward to Friday, and everything seems to be on track. It’s a really exciting time of year for all of us," said track spokesman Jason Settlemoir, the vice president of racing and simulcasting for Vernon Downs and its sister track, Tioga Downs, under American Racing and Entertainment.

Tioga Downs, located in Nichols, opens on Saturday, May 5 at 6:50 p.m.

"We’re starting a little later and ending a little earlier this year, and we’re still under our contractual agreement to have 90 race days, but we’re changing the season up a bit because of the colder weather. The new schedule should make it better and more enjoyable for the race fans," Settlemoir said.

Amongst some of the changes to the racing schedule this season will be several special Wednesday night cards.

Vernon Downs will feature some of the sport’s top harness racing stake events this season, including the sixth annual $50,000 Driver’s Championship on Sunday, August 26, which pits the top seven money-winning drivers in North America, as well as the Vernon Downs winning driver and a sponsors exemption yet to be determined in a race amongst each other, and the Zweig Memorial $700,000 race for three-year-old colt and filly trotters on the same night.

Other highlighted events include, the $500,000 Empire Breeders Classic for three-year-old trotters on June 1 and June 8, the $150,000 Historic Stakes for two-year-old trotters on September 6, the End of Summer Showdown family day and carnival day activities with three top stake races on September 7, and the $175,000 Kindergarten Classic Finals for two-year-old trotters on October 26.

There are also several daily and monthly fan-friendly promotions throughout the season.

"The stake racing is some of the best in North America that is being held at Vernon Downs. We attract the top horses, trainers, and drivers in North America right here to Central New York, so we are very proud in our stakes program that we have at Vernon," said Settlemoir.

The racing schedule will be regularly scheduled for races on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights in May and June, while the month of the July and August will also feature special Wednesday night races as part of the shortened season schedule. Regular events of Thursday, Friday and Saturday race nights will begin again in September and October.

For the complete racing season schedule with select holiday dates, visit the Vernon Downs website at www.vernondowns.com

"The big thing for us is to put the fans first. With daily promotions, monthly giveaways, fireworks, and provide some of the best harness racing in North America. We’re very proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish over the six years going into our seventh year going right here in Vernon. We’re still honing our skills and we try to get better each and every year to make things better for the fans. Our backbone has been and will always be customer service," Settlemoir said.

The 59th Vernon Downs season will be an historic one.

Springsteen and the E Street Band will perform their signature high-energy show Aug. 29 at 7:30 p.m. as part of the tour promoting their new album "Wrecking Ball," released last month. The show will take place outside at the Grandstand with doors opening at 5 p.m. General admission tickets go on sale Saturday for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band and are priced at $108, which includes parking. Vernon Downs officials say they are hoping to sell 30,000 tickets for the show.

Tickets will be available through the Vernon Downs box office, Ticketmaster.com and 1-800-745-3000 on Saturday at 10 a.m. For every ticket sold, chairman of American Racing and Entertainment for both Tioga and Vernon Downs Jeff Gural said he will donate $1 to the Food Bank of Central New York and CNY Veterans Outreach Center.

The 1970’s chart-topping group "America," who will help kick off Independence Day weekend with a benefit concert Thursday, July 5, have tickets for the 8 p.m. show available for $10 at the Vernon Downs Casino Player’s Club and all Ticketmaster locations.

Gural will donate $5 to the Food Bank of Central New York for each ticket sold and 50 cents for every dollar donated on the day of the show.

"I recognize that many people in this community continue to struggle during these difficult times, and I thought this was the best way for myself and our company to express our thanks to everyone for the support we have received here over the past six years," said Gural.

Settlemoir said that because of Gural the track has undergone some incredible changes over the last few years, and should continue to see growth in the coming years.

"We continue to make things bigger and better each year. Jeff Gural lets us to continue to be able to market and do things that a lot of tracks just aren’t doing anymore, so it’s nice to work for a guy like him who continues to let us be able to do those kinds of things and market the great harness racing that we have here," he said.

Jim Moran, 72, will once again be a familiar voice of the Vernon Downs spectators. Moran is a member of the Harness Racing Hall of Fame and is a member of the Communications Corner of the sports’ Hall of Fame at the United States Harness Writers Association.

The longtime Vernon Downs publicist and announcer will be behind the microphone for his 50th season at announcing the races at the Vernon track.

"I love it so much," Moran said. "It’s always a thrill for me each and every race season to get back into it and I still really enjoy it because it’s a lot of fun," he added.

When asked how many more years he had left in him in doing the play-by-play calling he said, "Oh, I don’t know. I haven’t given it too much thought really, we’ll see how the rest of the season goes."