By Scott Taylor (@staylorsports)
WINNIPEG — It was a number that remains impossible to ignore. On August 1, 2022, a tiny racetrack in the middle of Canada had $3,523,260 bet on its eight-race card.
It was, unquestionably a record one-day handle at Assiniboia Downs, and to be fair, all that wagering took place on Manitoba Derby Day, the most important day of the racing season in Winnipeg.
Still, Manitoba Derby “Day” was scheduled on a Monday night this year and the big race, the $100,000 Manitoba Derby itself, didn’t go to post until 10:10 p.m. CDT (11:10 EDT in the racing capitals of New York, New Jersey, Maryland and South Florida).
Of course, when you consider that less than a decade ago, Downs CEO Darren Dunn set Derby Day total wagering’s over/under at $500,000, the fact that a stunning $3.5 million was bet this year was a bit of a shock to the system.
“Back in the day we would never expect that number,” said Dunn, still shaking his head two weeks later. “Our measuring stick, just a few years ago, was ‘if it’s over $500,000 it was a good day and if it dipped below that it would be disappointing.’ Now, to do $2.5 million last year, a number that I told you at the time was a record that I thought would never be broken, and then to come back and beat it by a million dollars the next year is not anything that I would have responsibly forecast.
“It’s nice to dream and it’s even nicer when those dreams become a reality.”
These wagering numbers, numbers that now grow with almost every race, would not have been possible a decade ago. Three things have happened in the last 10-12 years that changed the fortunes of a racetrack that nearly went broke in the 1980s and then often struggled mightily through the 1990s and 2000s — struggles caused by everything from periods of falling interest in thoroughbred racing, to the 2008 recession to Manitoba governments that were not sympathetic to one of the most important agricultural industries in the province.
Now, however, the landscape is completely different than it was few short years ago and it’s primarily because of three world-changing developments:
- In March of 2020 the worldwide COVID pandemic shut down almost everything on the continent but it didn’t shut down horse racing in Winnipeg. There were no crowds allowed on the grounds at Assiniboia Downs but the crew was allowed to race in front of an empty grandstand — and a wide-open TV camera.
- Because there were no fans allowed on the grounds, Dunn was then able to introduce a plan he had been promoting for years against the pushback of an aging industry that believed that racing should only be held on weekends – he announced that ASD would experiment Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday night racing since no one was allowed on the grounds.He did this to move away from head-on competition with the big tracks – Santa Anita, Gulfstream, Woodbine, Churchill Downs, Belmont Park etc. which all raced on weekends. By moving to Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday racing, his little track just might have the TVG crowd and all that Internet wagering almost exclusively to itself.
He crossed his fingers, hoped he’d made the right decision and then watched his racing handle rise significantly. In 2020, in the middle of the COVID pandemic, Assiniboia Downs set a meet record. In 50 days of racing, the total handle, thanks to the new schedule and the sudden explosion of internet wagering, the 2020 handle was a record $63,263,947.
“It takes more than just setting the schedule and then forgetting about it,” said Dunn, playing down the Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday decision just a bit. “It takes a lot of work to make sure people know about your signal. A lot of racetracks have tried those days in the past and weren’t successful, but I will say our schedule is a strategic piece of our success, for sure.”
While the schedule is important, it’s only important because of the earthquake that changed thoroughbred racing forever.
The rumble started in the late 90s with the advent of hpibet.com in Canada. Started by Woodbine in 1997 as a telephone-interface service, hpibet.com improved every year just as technology improved. From 2005 through 2008, hpibet.com and many other forms of internet wagering started to become a fixture all over North America.
That history is not lost on Dunn. Up against the wall in 2020, he knows that if a worldwide pandemic had struck in the 1980s, Assiniboia Downs might not be around today. Instead, the COVID pandemic forced the Downs to embrace the new technology with every aspect of its operation.
“There were three strategic decisions that changed everything,” explained Dunn. “We had to change our schedule to lessen the competition, get our local market onto hpibet.com and then open as many new markets as we could outside Manitoba. We were able to partner with the big internet betting sites, TVG, a wagering platform which also distributes TV racing signals into 30 million American homes; New York Racing Association; Twin Spires which is the Churchill Downs group; Xpressbet which is the Stronach Group that runs Maryland Racing, Gulfstream and Santa Anita; and some additional groups along the way. Defining a way to increase our exposure and presence with all of those platforms was crucial.
“The Internet changed the racing world, but more specifically it absolutely changed Assiniboia Downs. Before the advent of Internet wagering, we were fully reliant on walk-up traffic. We also had telephone wagering and ultimately that reached a plateau. But along came Internet wagering. Internet wagering is what brought the Assiniboia Downs product to the world. We were a local business selling within Manitoba and suddenly, we were the same business, but with access to a service as big as Amazon that could sell our product to the world. It was a game changer for exposure.
“When I took over as CEO in 2010, one of the first things I wanted to do was take advantage of Internet wagering. Wagering within Manitoba has a limit but the world is unlimited. Well, if there was anything good that came out of COVID it’s that it put us in a position to move to Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday in order to lessen our competition in terms of worldwide Internet wagering. It’s the distribution that never could have been understand or forecast 25 years ago.”
Interestingly, there was one other benefit to the Downs’ decision to move to a Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday schedule. The weekends were now void of racing which meant that Manley Chan, the Downs’ director of food and beverage, could rent out the grandstand and all of its tremendous spaces for everything from trade shows and hobby and craft sales to socials and the weddings themselves.
“It’s incredibly busy here now that weekends are wide open for events,” Chan said. “I’m booked for the next few months. We have become a very busy, thriving events centre.”
Thanks to innovative scheduling, a worldwide pandemic and the growth of the internet, Manitoba’s little thoroughbred track is more successful today than anyone could ever have imagined.