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More Than a Racetrack: Assiniboia Downs Has It All This Summer

June 3, 2024 9:04 AM | Sports

By Scott Taylor (@staylorsports)

Presented by:

Assiniboia Downs

Manley Chan

Manley Chan, director of food and beverage at Assiniboia Downs. (SCOTT TAYLOR PHOTO)

On Sunday, June 16, Assiniboia Downs will once again play host to its popular Father’s Day Brunch, a gastronome’s delight that includes everything from prime rib to omelettes to jumbo shrimp.

Saturday, June 15, is Colour Fest. This coming Sunday is the first Night Market of 2024. On August 10, it’s the MudGirl Festival.

Sure, there’s plenty of live thoroughbred racing on the schedule, but in case you’ve missed the memo, Assiniboia Downs is no longer just a racetrack. In fact, it’s not even called a racetrack anymore. A number of years ago it changed its name to Assiniboia Downs Gaming and Event Centre.

Horse racing is the mandate and for 50 nights each summer, that’s what fans of the sport of kings will see, but for the other 314 days a year, ASD is busiest event venue west of Canada Life Centre.

“This is the busiest we’ve ever been,” said Manley Chan, the Downs’ director of food and beverage. “Some days we’re doing multiple events.

“We had some outstanding days prior to COVID — record-breaking sales for five years in a row — but obviously COVID changed things. However, since COVID has been over, it’s once again become a streak of record-breaking sales. Three years in a row. The phone never stops ringing.”

There are certainly many reasons for the growth of the Downs as something that is much more than just a racetrack. Chan and his staff have aggressively sold the Downs as Winnipeg’s great meeting place. The quality of the food has played a role as has ASD’s competitive rental prices. The variety of event areas has been a factor, as well.

However, it’s quite likely that the biggest reason for ASD’s growth as an event centre has been the Manitoba Jockey Club’s decision to move away from weekend racing and go to a Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday night schedule. Not only has the schedule created a huge remote, online betting clientele around the world, but it’s also freed up weekends for Chan and his staff to open up the venue to everything from office parties to bingos to craft sales.

“It’s been great since we went to Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday racing,” Chan said. “That has opened up weekends for all kinds of events — banquets, weddings, socials, concerts and special events such as our Night Markets. We just had Western Canada Rib Fest. On Monday Night, June 10, it’s our 66th birthday celebration. We have other big facility rentals coming up. Whatever it is, you name it we do it.

“We’re also a very busy place because we have multiple floors for facility rentals and special events. For instance, on the day of our major season opening news conference, as soon as the conference was over, we started breaking it down for Monster Bingo for about 1,500 people. When that’s over, we had a banquet at night and then, on another floor, we had a Celebration of Life. And then we had to re-fit the whole building for the opening night of live racing.”

Chan, a Winnipegger, returned to the city from Ontario 18 years ago and applied for the food and beverage manager’s job. He turned out to be the perfect candidate. He not only has a restaurant background, but also management experience.

“I came out of university and I was working in restaurants and I worked my way through different systems and different corporations. I did a lot of management work, both for smaller companies and larger businesses, not always food and beverage.

“But I was in Ontario with my wife. She was going to school out there and we wanted to start a family. We talked about our future and decided, ‘Let’s go back to Winnipeg, that’s home,’ and the timing was remarkable. Within a few months of moving back to Winnipeg, Assiniboia Downs was looking for a new food and beverage manager and bam! There I was. It’s just been going full-out ever since.”

What has made Chan the perfect man for the job over the last 18 years has not only been his professional experience, but also his complete understanding of the importance of the track’s reason for existence.

“Racing is our focus,” he said bluntly. “Our mandate is to maintain a healthy racing industry in Manitoba, but the extra stuff — the VLTs, the restaurant, the other events I talked about — has just grown exponentially over the 18 years I’ve been here.

“Because we’re so diverse in our business, we’re able to offer very competitive rates compared to other places. That really works to our advantage. Even if people are coming here for a specific function, they can still go upstairs and enjoy the racing, enjoy the VLTs and enjoy the restaurant. They can go and bet on racing. Racing is open for wagering 364 days per year — we do get one day off per year, Christmas Day, and we’re thankful for that. Otherwise, we’re going all the time.

“I literally get 5-10 requests per day for events. Unfortunately, I can’t do them all. For instance, Christmas parties are already sold out for the year. We were sold out of Christmas party dates in March. People are already booking Christmas parties and weddings for 2026.”

With live thoroughbred racing returning to the track on Monday night at 7:35 p.m., Downs’ CEO Darren Dunn definitely appreciates what Chan has accomplished at ASD.

“Manley has such a firm understanding about what can be imagined at this facility, it has allowed him to create opportunities for customers that routinely exceed their expectations,” Dunn said.

“Manley has been an ASD team leader for over a decade now and the business continues to grow. He has been able to take full advantage of our unique live racing schedule that has freed up prime rental dates. When you combine those opportunities with his hard-working and hands-on approach, the positive results speak for themselves.”