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Days at the races

Thrill of seeing horses give their all never fades

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Sara Wasiuta still enjoys the smells and sounds of Assiniboia Downs -- and the occasional bet.

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Sara Wasiuta still enjoys the smells and sounds of Assiniboia Downs -- and the occasional bet. Photo Store

When I think about positive memories of growing up in Winnipeg, I always come back to a place that today hosts some dynamite Manitoba socials and in my past offered the finest pony rides, bright lights and chiming bells I'd ever experienced.

Now and again, I visit Assiniboia Downs to reacquaint myself with an old-time favorite. Not far from where I grew up, I spent many Sunday afternoons there as a child. My mom, dad, brother and I would make a day of it, enjoying the petting zoo, concession stands and pony rides. Sometimes even my grandma would join us and we'd indulge in some french fries. But, of course, none of these things upstage the main attraction of Assiniboia Downs -- the horse races.

Perhaps one of the sights that would leave me the most awestruck was neither the stampede of charging horses nor the talented jockeys who guided them. It was, in fact, the fearlessness of the finish-line photographer who would mill about the track as the horses quickly approached and wait for the last possible second to climb up his perch to snap the winning shot. Now that was impressive.

For a mere toonie, my mother would bet on my behalf and I'd have to choose if my horse would win, place or show. I treated this decision very seriously and weighed the odds the best that my little brain knew how. Even if my pick wasn't a winner, you could be sure I'd scour the tarmac afterword for a ticket stub that might reveal the bet I regretted not making.

I'll never forget how excited I was the day a pet-store owner offered my family her VIP box for the day when she wasn't planning on using it. What was likely a small gesture on her part was a borderline celebrity experience for me. But anyone who has experienced the Downs knows the real thrills are down by the track.

You're missing out if you don't go check out the horses before they enter the track. I personally never figured out what to look for, but my loyalty towards choosing the most voracious-looking stallion has a high success rate. Soon after comes that distinctive trumpet fanfare ushering the horses into a pre-race lap before they line the gate, followed by the gunshot as they break free from their confines. Within seconds comes that air of suspense as the race builds momentum. People begin standing on the green, sun-faded benches like reverse dominos as the folks in front start to obstruct the views of the crowd behind them. Finally, a group clusters around the prime view of the finish line, only four feet of concrete and a white railing separating them from the action. The smell and sound of hooves striking the freshly groomed dirt, the anticipation from the crowd as the winners are posted on the scoreboard -- it's an experience incomparable to any VIP box or television screen.

These days when I go to Assiniboia Downs, I am able to gamble all by myself, and I am not embarrassed to say that I still get the same thrill from a two-dollar bet as I did as a child. Perhaps the main difference now is that a five-dollar win today feels slightly less like I've won the lottery. But still, small victories, as they say.

 

Sara Wasiuta is a creative communications student at Red River College. She enjoys home cooking, travelling, bargain-hunting and writing her blog, twocentsbysara.blogspot.ca. Follow Sara on Twitter @SaraEWasiuta.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 12, 2013 A6

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