By Scott Taylor
WINNIPEG — Assiniboia Downs CEO Darren Dunn admitted that what he’ll watch on Monday night, May 25, “will be bizarre.”
But he was also thrilled simply by the fact that “it will still be racing.”
“On the one hand, it will be, ‘They’re at the post. They’re off!’” said Dunn, a tad incredulously. “On the other hand, with no fans, it will be quiet, it will be different and it will be bizarre.
“There will be a winner in every race and it will be very competitive, but there will be no cheering down the stretch, no pounding the program on your knee, that’s just going to happen, at least not for a while at least. We will have essential staff only, with no food and beverage, but at least we’re racing. And without live racing this year, it would have been catastrophic to our industry. There will be challenges, but we will rise to the occasion.”
On May 25, at 7:30 p.m., it’s the first post of the strangest racing season in Assiniboia Downs’ history. The worldwide coronavirus pandemic has changed everything and on Monday, May 25, as Winnipeg’s little racetrack becomes the first track in Canada to open for live racing in 2020, the changes will be obvious.
There will be no fans in attendance, not even thoroughbred owners in attendance. There will be no buffet, no lineups to the pari-mutuel windows and plenty of parking. Trouble is, you can wave as you drive past on the Perimeter Highway, but you can’t come in.
“We will also have six races instead of the usual seven,” Dunn explained. “This year, we had to turn away horses, something we never want to do, but it was just impossible to accept them all with fewer races this year. There was just sense having herds of horses on the backstretch just standing around. People have to eat and if your horses aren’t getting into races, it’s just a waste of time and money. We wanted to make sure we took care of our local owners and regulars first.”
The jockey colony is a lot smaller as well. Usually, the Downs has a jockey colony of around 17 or 18 riders. Right now, there are 11 and Dunn admits he’s fortunate to have them.
“You know the makeup of our jockey colony,” Dunn said. “We have so many great riders from Jamaica, Trinidad and Barbados, but they are stuck in their home countries. We hope things might change and we can have them join us later in the year, but that’s just not how it is right now. So, we have five jockeys from Saskatchewan, three from Alberta, Kayla Pizarro from Winnipeg and we were lucky that our jockey champion from two years ago, Antonio Whitehall, and Nirone Austin, got to the track just under the wire back in early March.
“Obviously, we weren’t in a position of strength when it came to available jockeys and, to use a hockey analogy, we were very fortunate to ice a team.”
The race days will also be different this year. The 50-day will not run on Fridays, Saturdays and Wednesdays. Instead, race nights will be Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.
“We did our research in terms of simulcasting and remote wagering and picked up the days where the fewest tracks were running so we could take full advantage of the betting market,” Dunn said. “Right now, instead of 70 tracks running in North America, there are seven, so that puts us in a good position. Although, the news release just came across my desk that Mohawk standardbreds will begin racing on June 5 and Woodbine thoroughbreds will start on June 6.
“However, while hockey, baseball and football are trying to figure out how they can re-open, there has been racing across North America throughout this entire time period and the racing industry did it seamlessly. So, we know the protocols, we know what works and how it’s done, so we will be able to go to the post on Monday night.”
Despite coming back, Dunn was forced to lay off 50 people and could not hiring the 100 extra people he usually requires for a normal meet. Of course, this is anything but normal. Purses have been reduced by 20 per cent and even the Manitoba Derby took a hit. Prize money is down from $75,000 to $50,000.
“We’ve had to adjust,” Dunn said. “An unfortunate casualty has been the fact our owners can’t get on the grounds to watch their horses. They understand why but they still aren’t enjoying it and I’m sympathetic to that. With that in mind, we were the only track in North America to stream the workouts live on our website so they could see their horses work out. Still, they won’t be able to feed them carrots on the backstretch and I understand that issue.”
For those who are interested in wagering on all Assiniboia Downs races this summer, just go to hpibet.com and open an account (it’s very simple). You can watch and wager on all ASD races right there.
“This will be pure racing,” Dunn said. “We’re proud to be the first track in Canada to re-open and while we will still have challenges, we will meet the safety protocols and we will have a 50-day meet. We’re excited about it.”