The Red River Exhibition Association wants to take over Assiniboia Downs and incorporate horse racing into its plans for a "multi-purpose entertainment destination centre."
Garth Rogerson, CEO of the RREA, best known for putting on the popular 10-day Red River Exhibition fair every June, has presented the province with a proposal to take over its neighbour on the western outskirts of town.
"The idea is to have lots of interesting shows, concerts and other events, like motocross racing or monster trucks. Horse racing doesn't pay the bills (on its own); it's another entertainment option," Rogerson said.
A source close to the situation said the horse-racing industry is "dying," as wagering on thoroughbreds has declined 32 per cent in the last decade. The arrival of the Winnipeg Jets nearly two years ago has served to stretch entertainment dollars even thinner. The RREA plan could cut the province's $10-million annual contribution to the horse-racing industry in half by marrying the two facilities, Rogerson said.
To make it a reality, he said it would make a "significant injection" of capital into Assiniboia Downs as part of the entertainment centre. Consolidating the two operations would result in cost savings and entertainment synergies, he said.
"Having the (Assiniboia Downs') grandstand would be a really big deal for the Ex. We would bring in big-name concerts. You could have a car show inside with the exhibit space," he said.
The province's annual contribution to the horse-racing industry comprises revenue from video lottery terminals and various grants. About 95 per cent of the money is dedicated to thoroughbred racing, with the remainder put toward a small, rural harness-racing circuit.
Rogerson also wants to bring harness racing back to the Downs for the first time in more than 20 years.
The RREA business plan has the blessing of Manitoba Finance Minister Stan Struthers, who said he is very interested in working with the private sector if it can help reduce government expenditures.
"We think it has very strong merit. In the uncertain economic times in which we live, we have to be thinking creatively in terms of reducing the amount of taxpayer support and also putting forward a multi-use plan that will contribute to our provincial economy. We think this plan can do that," he said.
"If we can bring down the cost of government and ensure the long-term viability of horse racing and a multi-use facility like this, I think that's a good thing."
The RREA plan requires the approval of the Manitoba Jockey Club, which owns the Assiniboia Downs land and has run the facility since 1993. The dealings between the RREA and the province don't sit well with Harvey Warner, president of the MJC.
"If that's what they're looking at, I would call it slew-footing. Has anybody approached us formally about it? The answer is no," he said.
"And not to deal with us upfront? That's going to be a tough one to swallow if that's the way they're dealing with things," Warner said.
It all might be academic when Struthers brings down the provincial budget in March. A big dent in the $10-million horse-racing line could mean the end of the road for Assiniboia Downs, a government source said.
For two reasons, Rogerson wants to get involved before the racetrack is potentially forced out of business. First, the RREA has a mandate to support the agriculture industry, which includes breeders who raise the horses and farmers who grow the hay to feed them. Second, he doesn't want to see an auction of a boarded-up facility next door.
"That's really bad for business," Rogerson said. "That doesn't work for me when we have an opportunity to save it.
Warner said there is no question the Downs has had its fair share of challenges as a gaming establishment and finds it difficult to compete against the many options people have in the province today.
"We just have horse racing and VLT revenue, not even slots," he said.
Warner said Assiniboia Downs doesn't track attendance during its 60 days of live racing every year, because admission is free. But he doubts the number of people entering the facility every year is down, because wagering is up.
If the budget does cut funding for horse racing, it will be following the trail blazed by the province's two neighbours. Saskatchewan has already eliminated its $1.5-million annual subsidy and Ontario is looking to follow with a significant cut to the $345 million it contributes every year, the government source said.
And they're off
During the last decade, wagering on live racing at Assiniboia Downs has dropped 32 per cent and betting on rural harness racing has declined 50 per cent.
Other net revenue at the racetrack (VLTs, events, concessions and dining) have either remained static or declined and are not keeping up with inflation.
Assiniboia Downs is more than 50 years old.
Betting on the ponies is seen as a pastime for older men. The younger demographic prefers other forms of entertainment and gaming.
-- source: Manitoba Horse Racing Commission