The opening day of Harness Racing at Tioga Downs Casino Resort, located on W. River Road in Nichols, didn’t look the same as it did before the pandemic, but it looked much better than last year, a season that was crippled because of shutdowns.

But on Saturday, and in conjunction with the Kentucky Derby, which falls on the first Saturday in May, Tioga Downs was able to open their grandstands at a limited capacity, and with COVID protocols in place.

To enter, guests had to show proof of being fully vaccinated, or a negative COVID test to gain entry to the grandstands.

Charles Otto, general manager of both Tioga and Vernon Downs, stated that the strict COVID requirements stopped some folks from coming into the grandstands, but it worked out okay as the facility also had to adhere to capacity requirements, which are currently at 25% and will increase to 50% on May 15.

“It’s better than last year,” said Otto, adding, “We’re coming back around slowly.”

With the opening of Tioga Downs’ racing taking place on the same day as the Kentucky Derby, folks were flocking to the casino to partake in the annual festivities surrounding Derby Day, although COVID restrictions limited the normal activities.

For Brandy Boyd, whose son Braxton serves as a driver, her horse, Another Beach Day had four wins on Saturday. Another Beach Day is a 5-year-old mare by Somebeachsomewhere. Owned by Brandy Boyd and trained by Braxton Boyd, it was win number two this season. She now has 11 career victories.

Her husband Brett was with her on Saturday for the race with another horse, Hoosier Shark, running in the mix.

The couple traveled to Tioga to race from the state of Michigan and was just happy to be back out on the track.

“This is great,” said Brandy, adding, “I’m hoping my horse does good tonight.”

And that is exactly what her horse did.

Down the track from the Boyd’s was a group of sisters that traveled from Horseheads and even Hilton, New York, just outside of Rochester, for the opening day of harness racing. Donning the classic Derby Hats, the group was obviously having a good time getting together following a long year of shutdowns and isolation.

“We’re just so happy to be out, and the weather is excellent tonight,” said Jaime Davies, who is a teacher from Horseheads and one of the sisters.

For workers like Wendy Schrader, from Windham Township, she was happy to be out as well. Working at the track with her peers, Stephanie Rogers of Apalachin and Sarah Hoffman of Laceyville, the three employees were assisting trackside guests during the opening festivities, and were handing out complimentary T-shirts.

Up in the casino, newly installed partitions enabled the use of more machines on opening day, and there was a steady stream of patrons looking for their favorite machine.

On the backside, the patio near PJ Clarke’s had a full house, with socially distanced tables and all of the protocols in place. Wearing their finest attire, guests were getting out for the day and celebrating with Tioga Downs and the horse racing community.

Tioga Downs returns to live racing on Saturday.