By Scott Taylor (@staylorsports)
With the start of the 2021 thoroughbred racing season just three weeks away, Assiniboia Downs CEO Darren Dunn can’t imagine things being much better than they are.
After all, we are in the midst of a third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, and there is a very good chance that the Downs could have been devastated by the coronavirus. Instead, while Woodbine in Toronto, the Ferrari of Canadian horse tracks is shut tight, the little track on the prairie is getting set for a brand-new season with bigger purses and plenty of horses.
Even a problem that Dunn foresaw when the Canadian border was shut to all Caribbean countries this winner has been (hopefully) handled. ASD will go into 2021 in a less-than-perfect situation, but a darn good one nonetheless.
There were three issues facing Dunn this winter: Could he find enough jockeys? Could he find enough owners and trainers to bring horses back to Winnipeg after a year of fiscal austerity in 2020? Would he be able to start on May 17 as scheduled? And would he be able to have at least a few fans in the building?
The jockey issue was most pressing, especially after the feds shut the border to Caribbean countries.
“It’s been a real challenge,” Dunn said. “When the federal government put on its travel ban to the Caribbean, it literally wiped out 80 percent of the colony we had and had been working on and planned since our last live race. We started working on it in November and December and we had to go back to the drawing board and start from scratch.
“We created an incentive program to try and attract interest because we knew the jockeys had to come from North America and we didn’t want to cannibalize our fellow Canadian tracks. More so to try and attract some Americans which can legally work here during the pandemic. So, I’m pleased with where we are.”
As of today, there are 14 jockeys in the ASD colony. However, to open last year, Dunn had only 12. Still, he’s holding his breath that the number doesn’t dwindle for whatever reason.
“My comfort level is 17 to 18,” he said. “Every year we get interest from about 30 jockeys, but I don’t need that many. I don’t want people to come here from halfway around the world and not have a chance to earn a meaningful income. Seventeen is the ideal number and we’re a little light on that, but it could change and I can make 14 work.”
Back this spring is the 2020 Downs’ champion jockey Antonio Whitehall and so’s Kayla Pizarro. Richard Mangalee, who came from Saskatchewan last year and did really well, is here and back in the saddle. Neville Stephenson from Saskatchewan is back, he’s a veteran guy and a good, solid rider. And Stanley Chadee, who was our No. 2 jockey, is back for his third year and he really had a breakout season last year.
So now that Dunn got his jockey issue under control, it was time to reward the trainers and owners.
“Our overnight purses, the bread-and-butter, the day-to-day money that horses run for and the stakes races have all been increased this year,” Dunn said. “Our simulcasting has gone quite well in the off-season and has put us into a position to return some money to the horsemen that they missed out on last year.”
Even at the very bottom of the bread-and-butter hierarchy, the purses have improved. The purse for $1,500 claimers who haven’t won in the last six months increases to $8,500 from $7,600. At the very top of the table, the Manitoba Derby is now $100,000 compared to $75,000 in previous years and a recent low of just $60,000 last year.
All other stakes races are now $35,000 except for overnight events which will be $20,000 compared to the previous $18,000. It’s going to be a big year for everyone at ASD.
“Horsemen were patient and supportive through a challenging season last year, forcing them to sacrifice a number of racing opportunities,” Dunn added. “We’re now in a position to return that support with these adjustments.
“I sit back and I think about where we were 13 months ago and I think in theory, COVID walked into my office and flicked the light switch off. The light switch was the metaphor for my revenue. COVID shut down 140 VLTs, closed all my simulcasting and caused my fully-booked facility for trade shows, banquets, socials and Christmas parties to become null and void. COVID’s arrival closed off our revenue like a light going out.
“So, what did we have? We were able to open, but we opened with reduced purses and fewer races. And yet the horsemen were very supportive, very patient with us. Nobody was happy with the situation but everybody was happy to race. So, I asked our people to keep your eyes on the prize and everybody did. To be in a position to say, ‘We know you sacrificed with all of us last year, but I said we were all in this together.’ So, I was so happy that our trend improved – by the end of the year our horse population became very strong and, of course, that was a result of issues in other jurisdictions across Canada — and so I have better news this year. I’m just so happy that I could let the horsemen know that they were always at the front of our minds.”
And that’s why the very best news Dunn received this past month is that as of right now, the 2021 Live Thoroughbred Racing season will begin on time at ASD.
“I had a lengthy Zoom meeting about two weeks ago with the Manitoba government and specifically Dr. Brent Roussin and Dr. Jazz Atwal, who were on that call, and we had an excellent 30-40 minute conversation,” Dunn said. “We went over everything, including our history of having no positives from our facility or backstretch for 13 months. We’re extremely proud of the 13-month run that we’re on, keeping this place safe and sound. That was a big part of our conversation as well as reminding them of our current protocols and that we are fully prepared to race spectator-free again and that we’ll allow crowds to return when the government says they can and we’ll wait for that guidance.
“We were able to pivot last year and find a path to stabilize against a backdrop of massive revenue loss. We came out of it with our head above water and more importantly, safe and sound. So, we will rinse and repeat if that’s what it takes.”
So, Assiniboia Downs will start live racing on the date (May 17) that they scheduled for 2021. There will be enough jockeys in the colony to operate smoothly. Horsemen are back and happy and purses have gone up – better than pre-COVID numbers in many cases. And the horse population, which grew last year and provided the Downs with a saleable simulcasting and online wagering product last summer, is trending upward again this spring. Winnipeg’s Assiniboia Downs is in a very good spot.
“That is not a bet I would have placed a year ago,” Dunn admitted. “That would have been hard to forecast. I’m not fist-pumping to the sky. I am very cautious and conservative in my approach, but optimistic and very, very pleased with where we are and how we’re positioned and quite proud of the fact that once again, we’ll be the first track to open again in Canada for the second consecutive year. I’m very proud on behalf of our team out here. Away we go in three weeks.”