By Scott Taylor (@staylorsports)
WINNIPEG — After waiting an extra eight days, the 2022 Assiniboia Downs live racing season is about to begin.
Originally slated to start on May 23, the Downs thoroughbred season was put on hold due to crazy weather and the lingering issues surrounding the worldwide Coronavirus pandemic in Manitoba, track CEO Darren Dunn and his board asked the shareholders to delay the opening until Tuesday, May 31.
Now, thanks to the delay, the season will get underway with more horses in the barns and a full colony of first-tier professional jockeys.
For Dunn and Co. it was worth the wait.
“It wasn’t an easy process to postpone the season in the first place,” Dunn explained. “We had to hear back from various organizations and regulators in order to do that. So first, it had to be determined 100 per cent that we could act on the requests we received to push back the start date, then the information had to be disseminated to all the shareholders before the public was given word.
“But as most people are aware, it was reflective of the spring we had and something the horse people had been pushing for. We all knew we weren’t ready and it’s just so vital to come out of the gate with the ability to put our best foot forward and have as many full fields as we can because as racing has changed so dramatically with technology, it’s not as important how our local audience is, as it is our online and growing international audience.
“We now have to impress a very discerning and expanding international following. We need to put the product on the table that reflects the growth we’ve demonstrated in the last few years. That’s crucial.”
Dunn couldn’t start eight days ago for three reasons: 1) There weren’t enough horses on the grounds to guarantee full fields for each race, 2) the local horses still weren’t in shape to compete because of the long winter and 3) many of the top jocks Dunn knew were heading to the Downs were still caught up in international border protocols.
“Our main track, where our horses get their final fitness training before heading to the gate, traditionally opens around April 10,” he explained. “This year, we opened April 29, the latest I’m ever aware we’ve opened the main track. I’ve worked here for 40 years and been in senior management for 30 and we’ve never opened it that late. That’s almost three weeks behind and to one’s surprise, it failed to provide the horses with an opportunity to get up to their top level.
“As you know, it’s already extremely difficult for local horses, who have been on the farm in Manitoba during the off-season, to compete against horses that have been running in Florida and Arizona all winter. It’s worse when they get little or no time to train and prepare in the spring. It just wasn’t a level playing field and we had an overwhelming number of requests for a slight pause.”
“The slight pause,” was the right thing to do and Dunn is very comfortable with the decision. The season will start Tuesday with everything firing on all four hooves.
“We’re going to let the horses do the talking on Tuesday,” Dunn said. “’Opening restriction-free,’ is a phrase we haven’t used in more than two years here and while we are still COVID cautious out here — our entire staff is fully immunized and we will still wear masks – we are going to open restriction-free following provincial guidelines. We’re excited for our fans to be able to come out here right from the moment the first horse leaves the gate and we hope that we’ll be able to race restriction-free for the entire season.”
The interest from horsemen and jockeys has certainly made everyone around the track smile. The barns are filling up and the jockey colony is loaded after two seasons of what Dunn termed “a patchwork jocks room over the past two years.”
“Just the interest we’ve had from horsemen now that the U.S. border is fully open and they can get their horses up here free of restrictions has been a big boost for us,” Dunn said. “And the jockey colony returns to a Tier 1 level, something we had been getting used to around here before COVID struck. With the international travel restrictions lifted, we have a talented jockey colony.
Last year’s runaway champion Jorge Carreno (80 victories) is back along with No. 2 Stanley Chadee. Two-time Downs’ jockey champion Antonio Whitehall is back as are former champions Chavion Chow (2015) and Prayven Badrie (2018, tied with Whitehall). Renaldo Cumberbatch is back after a two-year absence; the No. 3 rider in 2021, Sheldon Chickenness will return; former top North American apprentice Leroy Nelson; and five-time Barbados champion Rasheed Hughes are all filling stalls in the jocks room. Add in Keishan Balgobin (Trinidad), Ronald Ali (former Santa Rosa champ), Leonel Camacho Flores (Turf Paradise) and fan favourite Kayla Pizarro are all getting set to ride this summer.
Things are getting brighter for the bettor, as well. The Downs announced Thursday that it has dropped its take-outs across the board, beginning with the Win pool which is being reduced by a whopping per cent to an industry-low 14.95 per cent. Take-outs have been lowered on exotic bets, as well and the Pick 4 will have a $25,000 pool guarantee and will continue with its low 15.95 per cent takeout.
In addition, the track’s website now features the new Player Portal that will be geared specifically to horseplayers. The page will showcase information such as the ASD Live broadcast, jockey bios and stats, trainer stats, multi-source picks, program information, and handicapping videos.
“We really wanted to continue to recognize the horseplayer again this season,” added Dunn. “We are so very proud of our growing fan base around the world and we’re looking forward to serving our local customers in person again.”
The 2022 racing schedule will once again be Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday evenings, with first post at 7:30 CDT. A full schedule can be found at ASDowns.com.
“And hey, our Winnipeg-renowned prime rib buffet returns after two years so with the buffet back, we’re excited and starting to feel like we’re getting back to exactly how we were before the pandemic,” Dunn said. “After all the challenges of the last two years. It’s time to horse around again.”