by Tim Bojarski, president, UNY-USHWA
Batavia, NY — The late Robert J. Kane has been selected to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Upstate New York chapter of USHWA.
Robert J. Kane was the chairman of the board of Western Regional Off Track Betting for 26 years, but he was also a huge fan of harness racing. When a longtime local racetrack went out of business in Batavia, it looked like an economic blow to many horsemen as well as the community it resided in. But Kane didn’t see a failed business, he saw an opportunity for a rebirth.
After Batavia Downs became insolvent in the late 1990s, New York State pulled their racing license from its former owners and the one time giant of the sport was relegated to an abandoned relic of the past. In 1998, Kane saw the opportunity for WROTB to keep harness racing alive in Western New York and convinced his group to purchase the shuttered track. But reopening it was going to take a lot more than just writing the check.
WROTB is a public benefit corporation and the state had never granted a pari-mutuel license to such an owner before. In order to have legislation changed to facilitate getting this done, Kane worked diligently for four years to obtain a racing license from New York State in order to reopen the track in 2002.
When video gaming machines were legalized and came online at race tracks throughout New York State, purse accounts swelled and more racing opportunities were presented through additional race dates and Batavia Downs was a big part of that renaissance. And since that time, a sport that was once on shaky ground in this area has now been solidly anchored at this track.
Had Kane not pushed to rebuild the track and position it for the future, Batavia Downs would now more than likely be a parking lot for the shopping corridor that borders it to the north.
In a sad twist of fate, Robert J. Kane died two weeks before the first live race was scheduled to be held at the newly opened track in 2002, so he never got to see the fruits of his labor. But in the years since, the improvement of the live racing product and the multiple expansions of the gaming floor turned what was once an empty building into the preeminent attraction in all of Genesee County. That has secured harness racing in this area for the foreseeable future and that is due to the vision of Robert J. Kane.
This award will be presented posthumously in the winner’s circle at Batavia Downs during Upstate New York USHWA’s night of Distinction on Saturday (Dec. 6).