By Scott Taylor (@staylorsports)
WINNIPEG — Assiniboia Downs CEO Darren Dunn is thrilled and excited. And why wouldn’t he be? The 2021 thoroughbred racing season begins Monday and the boss is ready to go. His track has plenty of horses, the trainers have brought many of their best and his jockey colony is big enough and talented enough to start the new campaign.
However, Dunn is also grateful. Grateful that the 2020 season didn’t crater and end the thoroughbred racing business in Manitoba permanently. Grateful that some decisions were made that gave the Downs a chance to compete with COVID. And grateful that the people who love this sport rallied around the little track in Winnipeg.
Now, after a one-week delay, the 2021 live thoroughbred racing season will begin in Winnipeg on Monday night at 7:30.
“When you get this close and you had a necessary delay, then absolutely, the juices are flowing, and it’s time,” said Dunn. “It’s a been a long off-season of challenge — and challenges that we’ve met. It’s time to open the gates and let the best horses win.”
According to Dunn, “nothing has been left on the table in order to re-engage the wagering momentum we had last year.” After all, it was the simulcast and on-line wagering during the COVID shutdown that kept Manitoba’s multi-million-dollar horse racing industry alive.
“We spent a lot of time this winter nurturing the relationships we developed last year,” Dunn said. “We’ve been in contact with our large wagering partners, we’ve been doing promotions with them, everything we can do to engage the wagering public. We wanted to make sure that we were in a position that if racing didn’t return, we had done everything we possibly could have done. So, I’m cautiously optimistic that we’re going to be able to achieve the large numbers we saw last year. If we can continue to put the product on the table, that’s the key.”
The first week of racing is certainly going to fit Dunn’s bill. The Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday racing cards this week boast an average of seven horses in every race.
There are three overnight stakes races and on Monday night five of the finest fillies and mares on the grounds will go head-to-head in the $20,000 Astral Moon Overnight Stakes. Among the favourites is five-year-old mare Miss Imperial, trainer Murray Duncan’s consistent threat has won 10 of her 22 career starts, including for stakes races (the Go Go Lolo, Canada Day, LaVerendrye and Ericka’s Lass Stakes) at ASD last summer.
On Tuesday, the magnificent, unbeaten three-year-old filly Melisandre is the favourite in the $20,000 Sail to France Overnight Stakes. Last year, as a two-year-old, she won a Maiden Special Weight in July and then won the Debutante Stakes, the CTHS Sales Stakes and the Buffalo Stakes. She was clearly the best two-year-old on the grounds.
Then, on Wednesday night, we’ll watch some classic favourites — eight-year-old gelding Hot Rodin (who won twice at Turf Paradise in Phoenix this winter), seven-year-old gelding Plentiful, the 2017 Manitoba Derby champion, and Shelley Brown’s Canadian Derby-winner Real Grace will face-off in the $20,000 One Night Lover Stakes.
The quality of racing is certainly there. Now it’s up to the bettors to respond the way they did last year as once again, thanks to COVID and the government regulations that go with the virus, there will be no patrons allowed in the building to watch, wager, play VLTs and buy food and drinks.
“This year is a proof-of-concept year,” Dunn said bluntly. “Last year, we turned the schedule upside down, going Monday to Wednesday from our traditional schedule of Wednesday, Friday, Saturday. We completely changed how we marketed our product, going more globally outside of Manitoba and we achieved great things. But, will it stick? Will this model work again? If it does, we could be set for the future. If we can achieve the kind of wagering numbers that we hope we can, then Assiniboia Downs could be taken to a whole new level in years to come and I mean that.”
Dunn makes it very clear that simulcasting and online numbers meant everything to the Downs. In fact, it saved the operation.
“Those online wagering numbers kept us afloat,” Dunn said. “They kept us sound and stable. That’s what going to Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday did for us. We moved to a schedule that avoided the big tracks that usually race weekends and dominate wagering. If we had not been able to achieve those numbers, we would have been underwater and in big trouble.
“We lost millions in VLT revenue, facility rentals, food and beverage sales and lack of customers on-site. Online wagering backfilled that. I don’t want to make it sound like we made millions and millions of dollars. We didn’t. We got back to break-even despite all the losses from our traditional revenues. If it hadn’t worked, we would have lost millions and the industry would have died. There is no escaping that fact.
“We were painted into a corner, we had to pivot, like so many companies, on the thinnest of a dime and push the business in another direction. The fact that it was successful was a godsend.”
These days, nobody would open a racetrack without a casino attached to it. However, what’s happened during COVID also taught thoroughbred track operators one important lesson: They know exactly what they are now.
“We’re like a movie studio, we produce content for a screen,” said Dunn. “People don’t think of it that way, but in a sense, we’re no different than Paramount, Disney or Warner Brothers. It’s very expensive to produce the content. Last year, however, so many sports were missing, but when we weren’t, it put a new spotlight on racing and we created new fans, there was no question about that. Wagering numbers around North America were through the roof everywhere.
“hpibet.com was just so important to us,” Dunn continued. “It’s Canada’s largest legal horse race wagering site, so it had credibility behind it. Our hats off to Woodbine for all the years they worked to create that product. The fact we could use our franchise to be part of that brand was absolutely crucial to us. We would not have been able to achieve what we did without it.”
The new season begins tonight at 7:30 p.m. The best way to watch is at home on hpibet.com.