By Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press
Darren Dunn was breathing a big sigh of relief Tuesday.
Assiniboia Downs became the first track in Canada to have live thoroughbred racing Monday night. There were no fans in the stands due to the COVID-19 pandemic but Dunn, the facility’s CEO, said the track registered a $1.067 million opening-night handle, more than double the norm.
“A huge sense of relief and a real weight, collectively, off my shoulders and those of my team,” Dunn said Tuesday. “It went exceptionally well, very smooth.
“I felt a little bit like Lawrence Welk conducting the orchestra but in saying that with everybody having an instrument to play, they played them very well.”
Dunn said opening night usually attracts over 10,000 spectators to the track, with online wagering generating roughly $500,000. There were six races on Monday night’s card.
“It was very encouraging,” Dunn said. “It’s not surprising to some degree relative to our first mover advantage.
“The expectation is that could come down and logically should . . . but we’re going to hope we made some new friends out there, opened some new markets and some eyes about the product we have at Assiniboia Downs in Manitoba.”
Being the first Canadian track offering live thoroughbred racing, Dunn acknowledged there were many eyes fixed upon the track Monday night. The thoroughbred season at Toronto’s Woodbine Racetrack is scheduled to open June 6, also without spectators.
Harness racing at Woodbine Mohawk Park will resume June 5 without fans.
“We were very proud to be the first track in Canada to be racing and we knew we carried some weight of responsibility with that,” Dunn said. “Ultimately, it’s not going to be a secret what we did, we took that from other tracks.
“It’s a model that works. It’s tremendous that horse-racing as an industry was able to put that in place and to be honest, continue uninterrupted in some markets, while the other major league sports continue to find a path and talk about options and opportunities.”
Jim Lawson, the CEO of Woodbine Entertainment, was a curious onlooker Monday night.
“I’m cheering for them, happy for them,” Lawson said. “It’s good for racing across the country.
“What gives me comfort is they did extremely well without on-track wagering and that’s pretty comforting. What it showed is the horse-racing business can sustain itself through on-line wagering.”
The absence of fans wasn’t the only indication that this was anything but an ordinary opening night.
Track access was limited to essential staff and related horse people _ one trainer and one groom. Owners weren’t permitted in.
Essential personnel entered the facility through a backstretch security entrance. They were asked COVID-related questions, given a temperature check, presented access to automatic hand sanitizing and issued a mask.
Jockeys wore masks in the backstretch as well as the riders’ room. Dunn said an outdoor lounge had been set up “to keep (jockeys) outside as much as possible.”
Jockey weren’t required to wear masks while racing but outriders accompanying them on to the track donned the facial gear.
“It was interesting to see,” Lawson said. “They likely followed the protocols of what’s been going on at the U.S. tracks as we intend to do.
“I think we were so anxious to get going in Ontario that we took the strictest standards we could find in the world and applied them. We will have pretty strict rules, both in harness racing and thoroughbred racing, in terms of who are essential personnel, who can be in that paddock, who can warm up the horses, who can be in the jockey’s room, who can help saddle up the horse.”
Dunn said everything went so smoothly Monday night that no immediate changes are anticipated moving forward.
“As far as learning anything, I’d say it would be to not change anything,” he said. “It couldn’t have gone any smoother and the results were very successful.”
Dunn said Assiniboia’s opening night was a clear indication that horse racing can continue to thrive even in the most dire of circumstances.
“It’s something that if we had to continue this way, and we will certainly for the foreseeable future, it works,” he said. “I’m still missing a lot of revenue, over 250,000 people (going) through the door of my facility eating and drinking and playing my 140 gaming machines that have been dark for 10 weeks so its a dramatic difference in revenue.
“But it (racing) is, at least, another revenue stream in through the door and it’s important in the healing process. But we’re not out of the woods yet.”