By Scott Taylor
The wagering numbers were stunning. Through the first three nights of thoroughbred racing at Assiniboia Downs, there was $4,477,101 bet on races at ASD.
That’s $1,067,221 on Monday night, $1,623,616 to Tuesday night and a whopping $1,786,264 on Wednesday night.
Granted, the Downs doesn’t see much of that money but the numbers were indeed a tribute to the popularity of the opening week of racing here in Winnipeg. During the COVID-19 pandemic, people all over the world are looking for things to do and it would appear that plenty of them are turning to pari-mutuel wagering on thoroughbreds.
Now, to be fair, the Downs doesn’t actually see much of that money.
“Let me start by saying we are not singing the blues,” said Downs CEO Darren Dunn on Thursday morning. “We’re beyond excited with the mutual results. However, so that people understand, we retain only a small single-digit percentage of that amount.
“With all the non-disclosure agreements I have to sign, I can’t tell you what that number is, but it’s a number that doesn’t get us out of the woods yet. But it matters, it helps and it starts the healing.”
This is a tough year for all professional sports and thoroughbred racing is no different. Winnipeg’s own Assiniboia Downs is the first track in Canada to re-open, albeit without spectators, since the COVID-19 pandemic was declared a legitimate international health issue in late January. With a head start, Dunn knew that wagering would be strong in the early going.
To his credit, he’s also prepared for the inevitable. As more tracks open, punters will have more options and that will hurt smaller tracks like the one in Winnipeg. Toronto’s Woodbine racetrack will open on June 6 and Edmonton’s Century Mile is hoping to open by mid-to-late June.
As well, the big tracks – Santa Anita northeast of L.A., Gulfstream in Fort Lauderdale and Churchill Downs in Louisville, KY – are already dominating weekend racing so monster wagering nights like the one the Downs enjoyed on Wednesday could be squeezed by more track openings.
“The mutual increases that we enjoyed this week were projected. We expected good numbers simply on our first-mover advantage,” Dunn said. “Whether we maintain those numbers depends on when the bigger tracks open. When you’re a small track like we are, you have to do your very best to avoid competition and we’re prepared to pivot to other days of the week or move from evening to afternoon racing if we have to.
“That’s something you can’t do when your doors are open to grandstand spectators and dining room and lounge customers. We certainly won’t have as much flexibility next year when we have customers back at the track. So, we’re prepared to change if we have to in order to avoid competition for the on-line bettor.”
True, but Dunn hasn’t given up completely on welcoming customers to the track in 2020. With his neighbour, MTS Iceplex opening on Monday, he’s hoping he can open the dining room and lounge to some customers in the next few months.
“I hope to achieve the ability to return people to the dining room and lounge at some point within the province’s public health guidelines,” he said. “I need an amendment to my health order to do that. But we do know it won’t be back to what we’re used to.”
Dunn also admitted he had some concerns about his jockey colony. After three days of very competitive racing, his three Alberta jockeys – Rafael Zenteno Jr., Edgar Zenteno and Rigo Sarmiento – got off to impressive starts. Rafael Zenteno Jr. leads all jocks with five wins, three seconds and $36,755 in earnings. Edgar Zenteno and Sarmiento are tied for second with locals Antonio Whitehall and Kayla Pizarro all with two wins. Edgar Zenteno, an apprentice rider, has two wins, two seconds, three thirds and $24,615 in winnings while Sarmiento has two wins, two seconds and a third and $23,877 in earnings.
“I’m just guessing but I expect that when Century Downs opens, Sarmiento will go back because the big rider in Alberta,” Dunn conceded. “But I’m hoping the Zenteno brothers enjoy it enough here that we can keep them. They seem to love the track and are having success so hopefully, they’ll stick around.
“What I’d really like to do is find a way to get our regular riders back into the country. That’s a real sticking point for us right now. Some of our top riders are ion the Bahamas, Jamaica and Trinidad and I would love to get them into the country but that’s just not happening right now. So right now, we have a small and very competitive jockey colony that I hope we can maintain.”
Racing resumes again at Assiniboia Downs on Monday at 7:30 p.m.