By Scott Taylor (@staylorsports)
WINNIPEG — Although there is still one month remaining in the 2021 Thoroughbred Racing Season at Assiniboia Downs, track CEO Darren Dunn is looking directly at the future.
Now that spectators are allowed back on the tarmac, now that reservations have opened up in the dining room and now that the once-empty seats in front of the VLT machines are filling up with patrons, there is a feeling around the Downs that the COVID-19 pandemic is a thing of the past. That doesn’t mean people have stopped taking precautions. It simply means that the feeling around the building is one of relief and enthusiasm.
And why shouldn’t there be enthusiasm? After all, the track has just come off a week in which there were three exciting stakes races. Last year’s Canadian Derby champion Real Grace held off the legendary Plentiful to win the $20,000 Far Flung Overnight Stakes. Eight-year-old Langara finished his remarkable career with an upset win in the $35,000 Phil Kives Stakes. And then Lucky Chuckee got trainer Shelley Brown her second stakes win of the week with a victory in the $35,000 CTHS Sales Stakes for two-year-olds.
Meanwhile, Brown and leading trainer Jerry Gourneau each had four wins, Jockey Sheldon Chickeness had six victories and there will be two stakes races – the Osiris and the Distaff – tonight at the Downs.
Dunn is appreciative of every good thing that has happened during the last two COVID seasons, but as Manitoba gets vaccinated and starts to come out of the COVID nightmare, there is a lot to celebrate at the Downs.
“Not in my wildest dreams did I expect the last two seasons,” Dunn said late last week. “Our experience hasn’t been catastrophic, but it has exceeded every aspect of challenge we ever would have or could have imagined. Frankly, the experience has been a lot like Ground Hog Day for the last 17 months. But now, finally, there appears to be a likely finish line in sight.”
At the heart of Dunn’s enthusiastic outlook is the appearance of fans on the tarmac.
“Just the return of fans in a meaningful sense is just such a positive experience and feeling out here,” he said. “Every additional live race day that goes by, attendance seems to grow and the vibe gets stronger. There is a real pulse out here again. It’s starting to feel, dare I say it, pre-COVID-like. It’s good for everybody’s spirit out here, both for customers and employees. It’s good for the soul and it’s overdue even if it comes to us as we’re winding down our season.
“Customers, when given the green light to return were, initially, just cautiously interested, but each day it has continued to grow. We are not going to reach pre-COVID levels by the end of the season, but we are going to have meaningful glimpses of quality crowds that will remind us of what’s waiting for us next year.
“It’s great news. Every night, I say, ‘Wow! This is the best night yet,’ and it continues to grow. Our reservations continue to grow incrementally each day. We’re able to return to group bookings so people can come out and recognize a company milestone or a birthday or anniversary. We still have immunization restrictions on the main level, the tarmac and in the winner’s circle, but everyone has been respecting those. It’s all been very orderly and we have a carefully thought out plan to re-introduce people to live racing but it’s going well. People have been very respectful and it’s all gone very smoothly.”
There is no mask mandate at the Downs, although employees are required to wear them. Dunn says the mask rule for employees will continue until the end of the race meet on Sept. 15.
“It’s been interesting and hopefully COVID is something that we won’t have to re-visit,” he said. “COVID 1.0 and then COVID 2.0 is enough for any executive in a lifetime.”
The key to the success of the Downs over the past two seasons has been the betting public. Moving to a Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday schedule opened the Downs up to a big American online betting market. That market has responded by wagering huge amounts on Downs races. The big numbers were never more evident than they were on Derby Day.
“The Manitoba Derby was off the charts,” Dunn admitted. “It was the first 12-horse field in 29 years. Last year, when people bet $2.1 million on the Derby, it was by far and away a Derby record against the backdrop of much less competition than there was this year. So, our expectations coming into this year’s Derby were certainly governed down.
“Then, people went out and blew away the record by wagering $2.5 million and that caught us all by surprise. We worked hard to promote it and then a lot of stars aligned with our field size, the competitive nature of the race, the amount of partner interest we had, which was all elevated by the guaranteed payout of the Jackpot Pick 5. Those stars aligned to create a wagering record that I don’t believe will ever be broken.”
Most importantly, Derby Day jacked up the overall wagering average for the season.
“Yeah, that brought a nice rise to our handle for the year,” Dunn said. “We’re now closing in on an average of $700,000 in wagering per day. That’s been a big increase since the end of June. If we finish the season in that range, as an average, it will not only be mission accomplished but a very satisfying outcome.
“It also sets the table for a whole other level of wagering in years to come. We’ve opened so many eyes, ears and doors to the Assiniboia Downs racing signal in the last few years and as a result there continues to be an appetite for it and we will continue to feed that appetite as we try and continue to grow this product out here.”
The growth of the competitive horse inventory at the track has also helped and, amazingly, that inventory appears to have grown despite border shut downs.
“With the U.S. border closed for two full seasons we were very pleased with the horse inventory that we were able to put together,” Dunn said. “Before COVID, our average field size was 6.34 horses per race up to and including last week’s races, our field size is now 6.73, which is mildly down from last year which was 7.16. So, in our two COVID years, our horse-per-race average has actually increased, which might surprise most and sets the table for years to come when we, meaningfully, have the return of our U.S. horse people. We’re pretty optimistic about what’s on the table for 2022.
In the meantime, there is exactly one month remaining in the 2021 season and there is still a lot to be decided.
“We have exactly 12 race days left and I am laser-focused on the finish line to this season,” Dunn added. “I don’t want to wish my life away, but with all the processes we have in place here, I’m not taking my eye off the ball one bit. I’m assuming nothing until COVID is wrapped up. For the next month, I’m trying to make sure everybody, both horse people and employees are focused on being safe and careful and ensuring that returning customers have a great experience in order to set the table for next year.
“Still to come, we have the Gold Cup, the top race on the grounds for older horses and my favourite race of the year, even more so than the Derby. We have the Manitoba Matron, the top female race for older mares. And the Winnipeg Futurity for the top two-year-olds on the grounds. Three of our biggest races are still to be contested and they will determine our season-ending division championships.
“All I can say is, there is still a lot to enjoy.”