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Winning wager

Horsemen who bet on Downs breathe sigh of relief over new deal with government; ready to get down to racing

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Trainer Emile Corbel has high hopes for two-year-old Explosive Fuse this season.14


Trainer Emile Corbel has high hopes for two-year-old Explosive Fuse this season.14 Photo Store

For an industry that's always been about the gambling, this wager was the longest shot of all -- the tiny non-profit Manitoba Jockey Club going up against the full weight of the entire provincial government.

And yet when the race hit the finish line this week with the announcement of a new 12-year VLT deal for Assiniboia Downs, it was the MJC that was home and clear and the provincial government that lay broken down somewhere up the track.

Not too many people would have bet much money on that result, especially as it became increasingly clear over the past 16 months that this provincial government was determined to settle for no other outcome than the bankruptcy of thoroughbred racing in Manitoba and the turning over of the keys to the Downs to a favoured partner in the Red River Exhibition.

But the ones who were bold enough to bet on the jockey club -- people like trainers Ardell Sayler and Emile Corbel -- went all-in, wagering literally their entire livelihoods on the David ending of this David and Goliath battle.

When it all came up cherries this week in the face of a capitulation by the province that was as extraordinary as it was complete, well, let's just say there was some satisfaction in that around the Downs backstretch Thursday morning.

"This game's a gamble. Whether this place was even going to be here a year from now was a gamble. Buying more horses to come here was a gamble. But the news this week, that was the payoff," said Sayler, who hauled 60 horses to Winnipeg from South Dakota this spring with no guarantee there'd even be a race meet at which to run.

"There was so much uncertainty about what was going to happen here. This new deal with the government is just a huge relief."

And not just for Sayler. Ste. Rose trainer Emile Corbel spent part of his winter down in Arkansas claiming horses at Oaklawn Park, and the other part of his winter talking to his wife about what their Plan B was going to look like in the event there was no place for those newly acquired horses to run this summer.

"You can always do something else, but you'll hate it. And where else will you go," said Corbel, whose entire adult life has been devoted to racing in one form or another. "So basically I'd have to look for something else to do. Probably drive a tractor for a farmer back home.

"There's lots of big farmers around Ste. Rose with nice tractors, I guess."

And then there are guys like jockey Neville Stephenson, who came to the Downs for the first time this spring from his native Jamaica, hoping to pick up some rides.

He's 44, which is a bit old for a jockey. And aside from trainer Wendy Anderson, for whom he's rode before in Saskatoon, he doesn't have a whole lot for prospects on the Downs backstretch.

Toss in the financial uncertainty that surrounded the Downs this spring and Stephenson had everything to lose -- and nothing to lose -- all at the same time.

"It's a relief -- and not just for me," he said between workouts on a very sloppy main track Thursday morning.

"This new deal with the government gives everyone a little more security."

And then there's Anderson, who had some big years as a Downs trainer in the 1990s and early 2000s but gave it up to go back to her job in Saskatoon as a mental health worker and family therapist.

Anderson kept training in the intervening years, sending out horses at tiny Marquis Downs while holding down a day job. But she retired last month and took advantage of her newly regained freedom to pay back the track that had given her so much, hauling a dozen horses to Winnipeg when the Downs needed them most and hanging her tack once again on the Downs backstretch.

"I've always wanted to come back. Everyone treats you so good here," said Anderson.

Now normally, when you bet on the underdog at long odds and that long shot actually comes in, you usually get a big payoff. But not this time. The $6 million or so a year the Downs will receive as part of their new VLT deal -- which represents nothing more than what the province takes out of the track every year -- will be enough to run a modest 60-day meet with $6,500 minimum purses, but just barely.

There's not much meat on those bare bones and no one is going to get rich. But then none of the 500 or so people that work at the Downs ever has gotten rich, which is why it always seemed so strange the provincial NDP was so determined to put them out of business.

"The money that gets created here has always stayed here," Downs CEO Darren Dunn said Thursday morning as he stared out at a rainy track. "The people that come to these meets leave with nothing more than what they already had and move on to the next meet. Because that's what they do.

"And in the meantime, while they're here, they get their hair cut here, they eat here, they go to Goldeyes games or Bombers games or The Forks. The money out here just gets recycled in Manitoba."

And so now that your unlikeliest of long shots has come in? What now?

"It's time to finally get the focus back to racing and the horses and the people out here," said Dunn. "Which is where it always should have been in the first place." Twitter: @PaulWiecek

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 25, 2014 C1

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