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Jockey club, Peguis First Nation nearing convention centre, hotel deal

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The Manitoba Jockey Club and Peguis First Nation are in the final stages of negotiations to put up a massive new hotel and convention centre development on the site of the Portage Avenue thoroughbred racetrack.

MJC officials say the new partnership will be a major step towards securing the future of live horse racing in Manitoba for years to come.

Just 90 days after learning through the media that the provincial NDP government had hatched a backroom plan to bankrupt the MJC and turn their lands over to the Red River Exhibition, MJC officials were buoyant on Thursday as they discussed a partnership with Peguis they say guarantees live horse racing this summer and lays the groundwork for many years to come.

Assiniboia Downs CEO Darren Dunn was elated Thursday afternoon following a news conference and luncheon at the Portage Avenue track at which he laid out the details of a full summer racing meet many were venturing even just weeks ago might never happen.

"To be able to stand here today in front of a full house of people just 90 days after learning the government was trying to bankrupt us and tell everyone that there will be a guaranteed 60-day live meet this year is a great feeling of satisfaction," Dunn said in an interview following the news conference.

"We owe a lot a lot of thanks to our unwavering partner, Peguis, who have stood by us through all of this. And we owe a lot of thanks to all the citizens of Winnipeg who were disgusted by the government’s behavior in this whole process and have told us they intend to vote with their feet for us and with their voices in the next election."

Dunn said negotiations with Peguis on a new development adjacent to the Downs on the 140-acre parcel of land the track controls — including two new hotels and a convention centre — are nearing completion.

"We’re in the late stages of finalizing our deal with Peguis First Nation," Dunn told the Free Press. "We’ve secured an architect, drawings are underway, plans are being formulated as we speak and we expect to have that plan concluded within the next 60 days and have everyone back here to show them what we’ve been working on for a year now."

The first of 60 days of live racing will go to post this Sunday afternoon. Dunn said after an initial lull created by the uncertainty generated by the government’s plan to bankrupt the Downs, trainers and owners from across North America have given the track’s plan to survive a big vote of confidence in recent weeks.

Dunn said a total of 550 horses are on the backstretch right now, with about 100-150 more expect soon, which would be more than the track operated with last year.

"I’m not afraid to tell you, I will be raising a nice tall drink in celebration at the end of what I’m sure will be a very long day on Sunday," Dunn said.

Dunn said NDP MLA Jim Rondeau was invited to attend today’s news conference, but he declined. Opposition leader Brian Pallister did attend, however, pledging his support for the MJC and scolding the government for developing a hopelessly botched plan for Manitoba horse racing in a "backroom... on a cocktail napkin."

A judge's ruling is expected to be handed down this Monday in response to the MJC's motion for a court to impose an injunction on the government's plan to strip the track of $5 million a year in revenue it earns from the 140 VLT's it operates at the Downs.

Sources said the RCMP are also continuing their investigation into a formal complaint the MJC made to police alleging finance minister Stan Struthers' behind the scenes machinations to bankrupt the Downs and turn over their land to the Ex constitutes breach of trust and maybe even fraud.

Dunn was also in the news himself on Thursday, as he announced he is retiring as the track’s announcer after calling over 15,000 races to focus his full attention on the new partnership with Peguis.

Meanwhile, the Downs will also be the centre of particular attention this Saturday when the Kentucky Derby goes to post. Goldencents, a three-year-old colt out of a Manitoba-bred mare who once raced at the Downs and was owned by local entrepeneur Phil Kives, is listed as the third-favorite at odds of 5-1.

It’s the first time in memory that a horse with such strong connections to the Manitoba breeding industry has run in North American thoroughbred racing’s marquee event.

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca

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