Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Giddy-up... Downs not out

Local thoroughbred track buoyant about future as deal with Peguis nears completion

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There will be eight races and eight winners when Assiniboia Downs opens its 2013 live thoroughbred racing season with their first card of the year Sunday afternoon.

But the most important race is already running -- and the Manitoba Jockey Club appears to be in the lead and rapidly drawing away.

Just 90 days after learning through the media that the provincial NDP government had hatched a backroom plan to bankrupt the MJC and turn their lands over to the Red River Exhibition, MJC officials were buoyant Thursday as they discussed a new partnership with Peguis First Nation they say guarantees live horse racing this summer and lays the groundwork for many years to come.

 

Downs CEO Darren Dunn was elated Thursday afternoon following a news conference and luncheon at the Portage Avenue track at which he laid out the details of a full 60-day summer racing meet in 2013 -- the 20th since the non-profit Manitoba Jockey Club rescued the Downs from an earlier bankruptcy and one that many were venturing even just weeks ago might never happen.

"To be able to stand here today in front of a full house of people just 90 days after learning the government was trying to bankrupt us and tell everyone that there will be a guaranteed 60-day live meet this year is a great feeling of satisfaction," Dunn said following the news conference.

"We owe a lot of thanks to our unwavering partner, Peguis, who have stood by us through all of this. And we owe a lot of thanks to all the citizens of Winnipeg who were disgusted by the government's behaviour in this whole process and have told us they intend to vote with their feet for us and with their voices in the next election."

Dunn said negotiations with Peguis on a previously reported new development, which includes two hotels and a convention centre going up adjacent to the Downs on MJC property, are in their closing stages.

"We're in the late stages of finalizing our deal with Peguis First Nation," Dunn told the Free Press. "We've secured an architect, drawings are underway, plans are being formulated as we speak and we expect to have that plan concluded within the next 60 days and have everyone back here to show them what we've been working on for a year now."

Dunn wouldn't say what the deal with Peguis is worth, but Jockey Club officials previously estimated the value of their entire 140-acre parcel of land at $50-$70 million. Any partnership with Peguis would be expected to see the MJC continue to operate the Downs as well as have an equity stake in the two hotels and convention centre.

The Peguis band is flush with cash these days and looking to invest after a $126-million land claim settlement with the federal government was finalized in 2011.

While all the talk on Thursday was about securing horse racing's future, the MJC is also still far from done with the province over what they say was Finance Minister Stan Struthers' improper -- and maybe even illegal -- plan to force the MJC into bankruptcy so that the Red River Ex could take over the Downs property without paying compensation.

While the province argued the cuts to the Downs' take from their VLTs are necessary in a time of austerity, jockey club officials point out the track's 140 VLTs were the only ones targeted in the budget in a province with 5,800 VLT's in operation in total.

A full judicial review of the matter was held April 26 at the MJC's request and Downs officials have been told to expect a court ruling this Monday.

The jockey club is seeking a court ruling that would prevent the province from putting into effect a plan to strip the track of $5 million a year -- to come through still unspecified changes to the Pari-Mutuel Levy Act and the Manitoba Jockey Club VLT Siteholder Agreement.

Also, sources indicated Thursday the RCMP is continuing its inquiries into a formal criminal complaint the MJC filed with police alleging Struthers' conduct on the Downs file constituted a breach of trust and maybe even fraud.

An investigator for the RCMP has interviewed a MJC representative, but a spokesman for the province said Thursday night nobody had contacted them yet.

 

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 3, 2013 C1

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