By Scott Taylor (@staylorsports)
Punters at Assiniboia Downs have known for weeks that Antonio Whitehall and Jerry Gourneau would eventually win the big prizes.
But it wasn’t until the final race on Wednesday night that it became official.
The 2023 live thoroughbred racing season ended on Wednesday and fittingly, jockey champion Antonio Whitehall rode the winner in the final race. In a $13,200 claimer over one mile, Whitehall guided Warrior’s Map, trained by Jared Brown, to a bit of a surprise victory. Warrior’s Map paid $6.80 to win, $3.70 to place and $2.80 to show as Whitehall won his second race of the evening and 56th of the season, to claim his third jockey title at ASD.
Whitehall, 29, who arrived in Winnipeg from Bridgeport, Bahamas in 2016, started his career riding dressage horses and showjumpers when he was 15. In 2018, Whitehall won his first jockey title with just 41 wins. However, in the COVID world of 2020, he earned his second by finishing with 74 victories, 54 seconds and 58 third-place finishes on a track-leading 299 mounts. He earned a whopping $705,869 for his owners.
That year, he also finished second in the jockey competition at Edmonton’s Century Mile as he and a small group of jocks would fly back and forth between Winnipeg and Edmonton to race at both tracks. At Century, he had 251 starts and won 43 races with 31 seconds and 41 thirds. In Edmonton, he won $465,100 for his owners. With 117 wins and $1,170,969 in earnings, he was easily the No. 1 jockey in Canada in 2020. In his career, Whitehall has won more than 440 races and over $4 million in purses across Canada during his seven seasons in the country.
This year, he won his third title by finishing with 56 wins, 42 seconds and 53 third-place finishes. His winning mark was 19 per cent while his in-the-money percentage was 53.
Damario Bynoe was second with 41 wins and capped the season with a brilliant performance aboard Magic Tiger in the 65th running of the $50,000 Manitoba Gold Cup on Tuesday night. Bynoe brought Magic Tiger from the middle of the pack on the final turn and let him run, blowing the field away down the stretch to win for trainer Wendy Anderson and owners Wind Dancer Stable and Bill Meikle.
Meanwhile, on the trainer’s side, Jerry Gourneau did it again. He not only won his fifth title but his unprecedented fourth in a row.
“Gourneau’s talent and commitment to excellence have not only earned him this remarkable achievement but also set a new track record with four consecutive training titles at ASD,” said Downs CEO Darren Dunn. “And this dynamic Jockey-Trainer combination of Whitehall and Gourneau also claimed victory together with Mano Dura in the prestigious Manitoba Derby, the first leg of the newly established Western Canadian Triple Crown.
“All the success Jerry Gourneau has claimed for himself, has been earned. Nothing has been handed to him. He is a remarkable success story and he deserves every bit of that success.”
In 2018, Gourneau, who hails from Turtle Mountain Chippewa Nation in Belcourt, N.D., was the trainers’ champion at the Downs. In 2019, it was another First Nations trainer, Tom Gardipy Jr. from Beardy’s and Okemasis First Nation in Saskatchewan who won the title. Then, in 2020, Gourneau and Gardipy finished one-two in the standings as Gourneau won his second title in three seasons. Gourneau then won the crown in 2021 and 2022 and this year made it a four-peat.
Last year Gourneau sent 288 horses to the gate and finished with 40 wins, 42 seconds and 52 third-place finishes. That’s a winning percentage of 14 per cent and an in-the-money mark of 47 per cent. Those numbers easily made him champion trainer for the third straight year.
This year, Gourneau finished the 18-week campaign, by sending 275 horses to the starting gate (106 more than second-place Wendy Anderson) Gourneau winning 41 times with 44 seconds and 42 third-place finishes. That’s a winning percentage of 15 and an in-the-money mark of 46 per cent.
No. 2 Wendy Anderson won 35 times in 169 starts while No. 3 Jared Brown had 27 wins in 126 starts. No. 4 Shelley Brown had 25 wins in 206 starts.
“To win four in a row is incredible, especially when you consider the heavy hitters who have been trainers at Assiniboia Downs since 1958,” said Dunn. “And do it with the depth of trainer colony we have today – Tom Gardipy Jr., Wendy Anderson, Jared Brown, Shelley Brown, Murray Duncan – and I don’t want to leave anybody out because it is deep with talent. To win four-in-a-row is an amazing achievement.”
The Downs’ revenues were also amazing this season. In fact, on Wednesday night, the final night of the meet, total wagering was an eye-popping $2,233,624, clearly affirming that the switch to night racing on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays has been a financial lifesaver for the thoroughbred industry in Manitoba.
“This meet will be remembered as one of the most extraordinary seasons in the track’s storied 65-year history,” said Dunn. “The 2023 racing season at Assiniboia Downs witnessed a phenomenal accomplishment, as fans wagered $60,962,674 over the course of the 50-day meet. The average wagering per race was $174,179 which is a 9.87 per cent increase over last year. This remarkable wagering represents the second-highest in the track’s history, reaffirming Assiniboia Downs’ incredible growth over the past few seasons.
“Assiniboia Downs extends its heartfelt gratitude to the fans, horsepeople, and all the stakeholders who have made this season a resounding success. The incredible support on-site, from our international wagering partners and the racing community at large has been truly inspiring. We are delighted to conclude the season on such a high note and look forward to continuing to provide exceptional racing experiences in the seasons to come. The 2023 racing season at Assiniboia Downs has left an indelible mark in its horse racing history.”