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A New Downs’ Season: Can It Get Any Better?

May 7, 2024 7:00 AM | Sports

By Scott Taylor (@staylorsports)

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Assiniboia Downs

Assiniboia Downs Training

It’s spring training time at ASD. Trainer Carl Anderson at the rail talking to The Comeback Kid, 58-year-old jockey Tim Tarasenco, on April 29, 2024. (GEORGE WILLIAMS PHOTO / ASD)

Last summer, Jerry Gourneau was the leading trainer at Assiniboia Downs while Antonio Whitehall won the jockey championship.

The fact that both of his champions have already returned to the fold for 2024, has ASD Chief Executive Officer Darren Dunn absolutely thrilled.

Especially, when one considers that the 2023 thoroughbred racing meet was likely the most successful in Manitoba’s history.

The 2023 Downs’ revenues were simply stunning. In fact, on 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 life-saver for the thoroughbred industry in Manitoba.

“The 2023 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 million over the course of the 50-day meet. The average wagering per race was $174,179 which was a 9.87 per cent increase over 2022. This remarkable wagering represents the second-highest in the track’s history, reaffirming Assiniboia Downs’ incredible growth over the past few seasons.

“And here at Assiniboia Downs we continue to extend our heartfelt gratitude to the fans, horse-people, and all the stakeholders who made the 2023 season a resounding success. The incredible support on site, from our international wagering partners and the racing community at large was truly inspiring. We were delighted to conclude last 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 left an indelible mark on Manitoba’s horse racing history.”

For Dunn, there is reason to believe that the 2024 campaign might be even better. And the improvement on the track that punters will see this summer start in the backstretch. Dunn expects plenty of horses and an incredible jockey colony.

“Oh, we have a really strong jockey colony this year with some new talent coming in,” said Dunn. “We have three returning champion jockeys in Prayven Badrie, Chavion Chow and Antonio Whitehall. We also have a Top 3 rider from Alberta who will be going back and forth, but probably spending more time here, Jose Asencio.

“We have a top Jamaican rider from Caymanas Park, Javaniel Patterson and we have one of the top Caribbean apprentices joining us, Rashaad Knights. He came to us on a recommendation from our leading rider from last year, Antonio Whitehall. It’s very competitive in Jamiaca. There’s a ton of jockeys there so to be a Top 10 rider is not easy to accomplish.

“It looks like, right now, that we have 21 riders, three or four more than we normally have coming in, but they are loaded with talent.”

While the people riding the horses are all set for a competitive year, the talented animals underneath them are arriving almost daily. In fact, just last week, 2023’s leading trainer, Jerry Gourneau, returned with a stable that should hover around 48 horses. Last year, Gourneau won his fourth straight title by sending 275 horses to the starting gate (106 more than second-place Wendy Anderson), winning 41 times with 44 seconds and 42 third-place finishes. That’s a winning percentage of 15 per cent and an in-the-money mark of 46 per cent.

The fact that Gourneau is back, along with his most important owner, Henry Witt Jr., — Witt Jr., Gourneau and Anotonio Whitehall combined to win last year’s Manitoba Derby – means a quality list of competitive thoroughbreds is almost a guarantee this season.

“We’re tracking for more than 500 horses, similar to last year,” Dunn said. “I’m pleased that there has been no regression. A little bit of growth in that there are a couple of new barns joining us for the first time – a gentleman named Carlos Moreno from Arizona and a gentleman named Dave Gould who will join us from Alberta this year. It’s nice to have some new blood in the backstretch. My goal in the off-season was to make sure we sustained the same horse supply, because when you’re coming out of wagering per day of $1.2 million, in order to meet or exceed that, I can’t do it without the product on the track.”

Opening Night is Monday, May 20, but Dunn is confident enough to suggest that the folks at the Downs might just be ready to start racing tomorrow.

“I’m absolutely confident three weeks out that we’re going to have the product to put on the table,” Dunn said. “We have the jockeys who will be competitive in the saddle and our partnerships have only been further solidified speaking on the national front. We worked very hard in the off-season to ensure support, ensure return participation in our wagering pool and likely growing. So, with some efforts to promote within and outside the Manitoba borders, I have reason to believe that we are going to be able to achieve seven-figure daily wagering again.”

It’s important to note that the Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday night racing schedule has meant more to the Downs that just a marked increase in Internet wagering. It’s also resulted in increased events at a facility that has become much more to Manitoba than just a racetrack.

“While our focus will always be on horse racing and gaming here, and while we continue to benefit from the Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday schedule in terms of wagering, we also have seen how the schedule frees up our facility outside of those days,” Dunn explained. “We might not start racing until May 20, but we continue to book events here that are exciting, new and attract a new fresh young crowd. We had a family-friendly Cinco de Mayo event, we just landed something called Western Canadian Rib-Fest on the weekend of May 31-June 2. It tours Canada with music, entertainment and, of course, great ribs. We’re excited about that.

“We’ve simply, never been busier out here. That’s good for Assiniboia Downs, but it’s great for Manitoba.”