BY JOHN THEALL Sports writer


CHEERING THEM ON — Hamilton College students, from left, Andee Buchirelli, Emily Kaplan, Taylor Morris and Danielle Mortorano, get excited as horses make their way down the stretch in the second race on opening night at Vernon Downs. Harlem Rocktune won the race. (Sentinel photo by John Clifford)

SOUNDING THE START — Vernon Downs official bugler Jeff Stockham of Syracuse uses a brass coach horn to signal the introductory start of the racing season at Vernon Downs on Friday night. The racing season runs through until Nov. 3. (Sentinel photo by John Clifford)

FIRST VICTORY — The trotter Ziegler Hanover crosses the finish line first during the first race of Opening Night at the Vernon Downs race track with Chris Lems doing the steering as Forrest County, middle, and Steubenmeanmachine came in second and third places, respectively. The driver Lems won three races during the 59th opening night, which featured a 10-race card. (Sentinel photo by John Clifford)

PLACE YOUR BETS — Vernon Downs walk around teller Marcia Cheney awaits the bets of Daniel Finnerty of Verona, as Cheney uses a mobile betting station to take wagers on opening night at the race track. (Sentinel photo by John Clifford)

MEET AND GREET — Nina Hagg, 6, held by her father Hans Hagg of New Hartford, talks with Debbie Havener sitting on top of Hawkeye during Friday’s opening night at the Vernon Downs race track. Havener is the parade marshall at the track. (Sentinel photo by John Clifford)

VERNON — "And they’re off!"

That was the sound of the familiar voice of longtime track announcer Jim Moran on opening night of the 59th annual harness racing season at Vernon Downs on Friday.

The almost wintry weather didn’t chill the spirits of the enthusiastic spectators on hand during the event, which featured an array of food venders, promotional giveaways, kids play areas, a fireworks display, and of course compelling racing action.

Despite the National Weather Service issuing a freezing warning on a day when temperatures dropped to the low 30s, an announced crowd of 3,764 was on hand to brave the elements. The attendance was up by 304 persons from the 3,460 that were on hand last year on a relatively calm spring night.

This year’s 90-event track schedule was altered for a later date and an earlier ending to avoid the chilly conditions, but Mother Nature had other ideas on Friday.

With the exception of an equipment malfunction before the start of the third race, which was not believed to have been caused by the weather conditions, it was a smoothly run program that featured several down-to-the-wire finishes that was capped by a display of fireworks that lit up the night sky.

The grandstands were loaded with people watching the races.

Hans Hagg, accompanied by his 6-year-old daughter Nina from New Hartford, said that he has been coming to the track since he was a small boy and that he cannot describe the feeling that you get on the opening night of a track season.

"We just enjoy the racing. I’ve been coming over since I was a kid around my daughters age, and now it’s like passing it along to the next generation. She loves coming up and seeing the races. She’s been coming up a couple years now. Rain or shine we come up here at least one time a week all season long," he said.

Dylan Dominick from Ogdensburg said that the weather didn’t deter him from coming out to the track.

"There was no way the weather was going to stop me from coming out," he said. "I’ve been waiting since the snow melted to come to the track, that’s how much I love it."

Not everyone was in it strictly for the races.

For Sue Holbert from Edmeston, it was about routing for her brother-in-law Pete Carney, who will be driving in tonight’s 11th race as the owner and trainer of Frisky Joe.

"He got his license last year, but he has been training for this his whole life," Holbert said. "This is just awesome, and I love watching the racing. It’s some of the best in the country," she added.

Even Jason Settlemoir, vice president for racing and simulcasting at both Vernon Downs and its sister track Tioga Downs in Nichols, is taken back to his childhood each and every opening night at the track.

"It goes back to when I was a kid at 5 years old and I would go to Scioto Downs (Columbus, Ohio), and I still remember the excitement of getting back to the track. The sights, the sounds, the horses, the bright lights, the smells. It’s a combination of everything that’s exciting about it. People become passionate with racing. I still get very excited about opening day like when I was a kid.

"If I had one piece of advice for someone who has never experienced a night at the track, to come out and give it a try. It’s a lot of fun, it’s a lot of excitement, and we try to bring the action to you," he said.

Along with the racing, the weather was on everybody’s mind on the night, but Settlemoir said that it’s a true testament to how passionate the fans of harness racing truly are.

"The fan support on this chilly evening was great and helped set the tone for a successful launch to our live racing schedule," added Settlemoir.

"We hope to parlay this auspicious opening into one of the finest and most exciting seasons in the track’s long and proud history."

As for the racing action, the pacer Dovetail won the sixth race with a 1:54.1 timed finish, and trotter Aruba Vacation claimed the seventh race in 1:54.3 to record the evening’s fastest miles on the night.

Dovetail, which was driven by Fern Paquet, Jr., earned her fourth win on the current campaign with her quick-footed score in the $9,500 Open test for female pacers. It marked the 14th lifetime victory for the pacer.

The track’s basic Thursday-Saturday night weekly slate begins on May 3. The 90-event racing season continues tonight with a 12-race card beginning with a 6:55 post time.

The season runs through until Nov. 3.