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Tories trot out VLT-deal vow for Downs

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MANITOBA PC Leader Hugh McFadyen had an election carrot in his hand when he paid a visit to Assiniboia Downs Thursday.

But the horses weren't biting. At least not yet.

Harvey Warner, president of the Manitoba Jockey Club, welcomed a pledge by McFadyen on Thursday to give the Downs a more lucrative arrangement from the profits of the track's 140 VLTs.

But Warner has his eye on a much bigger prize -- a long-term deal with the province to remake the Downs from its current status as a racetrack with a few VLTs to a full-blown entertainment centre, complete with a casino, rental halls and live entertainment that won't just include horses.

"A 75-25 (VLT) split would be nice to have again," Warner said of McFadyen's pledge. "But at the end of the day, 140 VLTs in a 50-year-old facility isn't solving anything. Just look at what we compete against. That's what we need."

Warner revealed Thursday that the track is embarking this year on a major industry study that will assess everything from the impact of the Downs on the Manitoba economy to the varying funding arrangements other provinces and states have with their racetracks.

Warner said he's hoping the study becomes a springboard for a "bold" new proposal to take the track into the future.

Under the current NDP government, the Downs has a guaranteed arrangement that translates into about 66 per cent of the profits from VLTs on their grounds, with the remainder of the money going back to the province.

That translates into, on average, a little over $5 million a year for the Downs, money the track uses to support live racing.

But McFadyen told a news conference at the Downs that his government would return the funding formula to the 75-25 split it was prior to 2003. That split is also the one in place for the MTS Centre, McFadyen said.

According to McFadyen, the current reduced ratio has cost Assiniboia Downs about $1.35 million in lost revenue since 2003.

Warner confirmed McFadyen's numbers were accurate and said the money the Downs missed out on with the new arrangement could have gone a long way at the non-profit track.

McFadyen's firm pledge was in stark contrast to the platitudes and general niceties offered by Jim Rondeau, the NDP's representative at the news conference. The provincial Liberals did not send a representative.

Rondeau pledged his government would continue working "co-operatively" with the Downs but he offered no specific promises for the future.

And he noted the obvious -- that the annual Downs news conference, held every year at this time to showcase the new racing season, was a bit better attended this year than most by persons of one particular walk of life.

"There's more politicians than there have been in the last seven years," said Rondeau. "It must be an election."

While Warner never received a specific promise from Rondeau, he says he's still got one from NDP Premier Gary Doer that the Downs will ultimately get the entertainment complex -- 'racino' in gambling parlance -- that it seeks.

Plans to build such a facility were in their advanced stages a couple of years ago when the NDP suddenly got cold feet at the 11th hour.

"We were already moving forward on a racino concept," says Warner, "And he (Doer) committed to us that, 'We dropped the ball and we'll make good on it.'"

And Warner said whoever becomes the government this month is not going to have any choice but to face the Downs issue.

"There is no question. Either something happens or racing will have to be different," said Warner. "How much can you keep reducing? These guys that come from Portland and Phoenix are eventually going to say, 'The meet's not long enough.' And without those guys, we don't have a meet.

"If that happens, it will be either a slow death or they'll just stop supporting racing. But I don't believe it's going to come to that."


What's up at the Downs

1. The 2007 70-day live summer racing meet opens this Saturday at Assiniboia Downs with a special 1 p.m. post time. The track will feature eight live races through the afternoon and then lead right into a simulcast of the 2007 running of the Kentucky Derby late Saturday afternoon.

* 2. After a disastrous couple of seasons in which they embarrassed themselves and the racetrack, there's been a shakeup of the Downs' racing stewards. Moving out are Hazel Bochinski and Val Isman; moving in are Larry Huber and Jennifer Smith. Smith and Huber -- the latter also being the executive director of the Manitoba Horse Racing Commission and a former Downs steward -- join existing Downs stewards Craig Macdonald and Jack Wash for the 2007 meet.

* 3. Trainer Rebecca Welch is back at the Downs this summer and hoping to beat the sophomore jinx.

In her rookie training year last year, Welch earned 23 wins from just 58 starts -- a 40 per cent winning clip that was tops among female trainers in all of North America and second among all trainers on the continent.

* 4. There will be some regal horses at the Downs this summer, including the sons and daughters of such notable sires as A.P. Indy, Storm Cat, Tiznow, Danzig and Distorted Humor. Trainer Marty Drexler, a 36-year-old former ticket seller who had a career year last year, will also have Shadow Rush, who was the Woodbine Sales topper at $275,000 a couple of years ago.

* 5. The race to be top jockey promises to be more competitive than ever. Alan Cuthbertson, the oldest full-time jockey in North America at 59, is back to defend his 2006 riding title. But he'll be pushed hard by Travis Dunkelberger, who's won leading rider titles at Laurel Park, Pimlico and Charles Town and returns this summer to the place where he got his start as an apprentice in the mid-1990s.

-- Paul Wiecek

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 4, 2007 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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