Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

$$ issues hover as Downs closes for season

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SCOTT Smith wasn't in attendance yesterday as Assiniboia Downs brought down the curtain on another live racing season.

But the presence of the Manitoba Lotteries minister was felt as the Portage Avenue thoroughbred track wrapped up the 2006 live race meet with a subdued farewell to a local legend, a fond remembrance of a fallen jockey and tributes to the meet's top local trainer, jockey and horse.

Because hovering above it yesterday all was the Downs' financial situation and some comments Smith had about the matter last week.

Heading into the final weekend of live racing, the Downs handle was down about six percent.

Average wagering during the 70-day race meet in 2006 was $103,999 per day, just under $7,000 a race day less than last year. And 2005 was a disappointing year.

If there was a small silver lining in the racing numbers this year it was that the on-track handle was up just slightly -- averaging $78,419 per race day this year compared to $77,052 last year.

But those numbers were more than offset by a significant decline in the amount of money people were wagering on the Downs from other cities via simulcast.

And so put it all together and the final chapter written on the 2006 live racing season yesterday was once again not the one the management of the non-profit track was hoping to write.

Which is where Smith comes in. The Manitoba Jockey Club has been lobbying the minister for a sweeter VLT deal to give them the money they say they need to boost purses and stay competitive with other tracks in hopes of stopping the handle bleeding.

Smith said negotiations continue, but suggested the Downs may have to be content with the terms of their present deal with Lotteries, which was signed in 2004 and runs through 2008.

"You get into an arrangement, you get into an agreement," said Smith. "You can't change every time around."

Smith also put a damper on any suggestions that the province might be willing to resurrect a plan scuttled two years ago to erect a full-blown casino at the racetrack.

"That's not in the plans right now," said Smith. "As far as a full-blown casino, we're not interested in building any more casinos on the government side."

But Smith didn't rule out including a new sports book for the racetrack as part of a pitch by tracks across Canada to get the federal government to change the Criminal Code so that racetracks could take pari-mutuel bets on horse racing and other sports.

And so hope sprang eternal at the Downs yesterday, just as it did five months earlier on opening day.

But there were some last few details to fill out. A day after trainer Martin Drexler won the $65,000 Matron Breeders Cup with Empress Pegasus, trainer Emile Corbel and nine-year-old war horse Elite Mercedes went wire-to-wire to win the $65,000 Gold Cup.

The win aboard Elite Mercedes locked up the 2006 rider's title for jockey Alan Cuthbertson in what had been a hard-fought race with rivals Rohan Singh and Kirk Johnson.

And South Dakota trainer Ardell Sayler wrote himself into the Downs record books, picking up an unprecedented eighth training title at the close of the meet yesterday.

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 25, 2006 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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