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Fiery Struthers rejected Peguis deal, club claims

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A senior cabinet minister in the Selinger government reportedly became enraged when representatives of Assiniboia Downs said they had a deal with Peguis First Nation to build a hotel and conference centre on the site as the way to save the financially struggling track.

Finance Minister Stan Struthers told the track officials the government viewed a hotel and conference centre at the Downs as a back-door way for Peguis to build a casino on city land, which the Selinger government would not support, documents filed in court say.

"This is about Peguis getting a casino, and that is not going to happen," Struthers reportedly told the track officials.

Struthers' alleged anger and impatience with the track officials were recorded in notes of an hour-long Feb. 28 meeting at the legislature that were recently filed in an affadavit in Court of Queen's Bench in a legal dispute between the Manitoba Jockey Club, which owns the Downs, and the province.

The government won't comment on what the track owners allege Struthers said and how he behaved, though it has said the jockey club should not use the courts to intervene in the budget-making process. The province has said it will have no comment while the matter is before the courts.

"First Nations is never going to get a casino out there," Struthers allegedly told the jockey club officials, including club CEO Darren Dunn and board member Barry Arnason. "They are not getting a city casino and they know it -- we told them many times...they will not get a casino in the city."

The alleged statements are in written notes the club filed in court and their accuracy has yet to be discussed there.

The notes were filed with the court as part of an affidavit sworn by Dunn. The jockey club has applied for an interim ruling to have the court freeze the existing funding arrangements the club has with the province and Manitoba Lotteries Corp., which combined provide about $9.5 million from VLT and betting revenues to the club to operate the track.

The allegations have not been proven in court. The province said it plans to oppose the jockey club's application, and will argue that the club should not be using the courts to intervene in the budget-making process.

The Feb. 28 meeting at the legislature was held at Struthers' invitation to provide him and jockey club officials an opportunity to discuss the track's future. Dunn said Struthers repeated several times that funding to the club would be cut this year by at least $5 million and the government planned to eventually remove all 140 VLTs now at the track because they weren't generating enough revenue.

Dunn quotes Struthers as claiming there is overwhelming public support for the funding cut to the track -- and he said Struthers stated the jockey club could never win a public-relations war with the Selinger government.

"By telling people that I am putting tax dollars into hospitals and schools instead of horses... I have already won the public-opinion vote," Struthers is quoted as telling the club officials. "So if you want to go there, I am prepared... I am a politician -- this is what I do. If you want a public fight, I am ready, and we will win -- no question."

Accompanying Struthers at the meeting was government consultant Angela Mathieson, who Dunn described as often being "agitated" during the talks. He said Mathieson repeatedly described the jockey club's deal with Peguis as "stupid."

The jockey club sees a partnership with Peguis as a way to revitalize Assiniboia Downs. A hotel and conference centre would generate additional year-round revenue for both the track and Peguis, and an estimated $5 million to $6 million in additional VLT revenue that would go directly to the financially challenged provincial government.

Arnason said the jockey club is committed to honour its deal with Peguis and has no intention of backing out. "We have an agreement with our partner (Peguis), and they are our partner," Arnason told Struthers. "We honour our agreements. I gave my word to (Peguis) Chief (Glenn) Hudson and I intend to honour it. That is the right thing to do and that is the way I was raised."

Struthers repeatedly told club officials the Selinger government would not support any First Nations involvement at the track and the club's best move to ensure the track's survival would be to let the Red River Ex operate it. Struthers is quoted as saying the first thing the Ex would do once it takes over the track is kill the deal with Peguis.

Arnason said if the province starves Assiniboia Downs of its funding, the jockey club could replace that money by selling the track and its surrounding 130 acres to Peguis and use that money to continue to operate racing at the site.

 

aldo.santin@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 30, 2013 A5

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