Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Arizona's loss is Manitoba's gain

Downs picks up horses, trainers stranded by track closure

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They thought they all were goners, but the Colonels Cat had an extra life and came back -- to the winner's circle.

The June 12 win at Assiniboia Downs was his first race since being stranded in Prescott Valley, Ariz., when Yavapai Race Track cancelled its 55-day schedule roughly a month ago, due to financial problems.

The sudden closure left close to 750 horses and their owners and trainers stranded with nowhere to race.

Along with The Colonels Cat came three of the orphaned trainer/owners.

Jimmy Ray Jr. of Texas (18 horses), Wendell Matt of Phoenix by way of Montana (four horses) and Amelio Trejo of Phoenix, by way of Mexico City (seven horses) are now at the Downs.

Trejo and Matt have been here before. Trejo trained horses here for nine summers, winning Trainer of the Year in 1982 and '83, and Matt was a jockey here for one year.

"I was here in 1982 when they shut the door here, too," laughed Matt. "I've been to two or three tracks that had closed down. So the same thing went through my mind at Yavapai -- oh no, not again."

"(The cancelled meet) caught about a couple of hundred people off guard," said Ray, who owns and trains The Colonels Cat. "(Yavapai) kept telling us they were going to run so we moved there (following the season at Turf Paradise in Phoenix), and then they said no. Then we just sat there. Money was going out like crazy, and nothing was coming in."

The Colonels Cat, a four-year-old gelding, ridden by Gustavo Ortiz, is the only horse from among the three stables to race here so far. The 15-1 long shot paid $32.70 on a $2 win ticket after beating Snappy Chappy and Lily's Knight on June 12.

When the Downs opens up again with a four-day program June 29 to July 2, all three trainers expect to have horses in the lineup. They agreed that it might be a little early for the July 1, $12,000, one-mile Canada Day Stakes, but then again, trainers are notorious for keeping their strategies very close to the vest.

Ray said that much of his decision to come here was based on what he had heard from veteran Downs trainers Chad Torevell and Jared Brown, who had horses at Turf Paradise over the winter. "They'd asked me in the spring to come up here, but I wanted to stay closer to Phoenix," he said.

The big Texan reasoned that he was already 1,200 miles from home, and it's another 2,000 to come up to Canada, so he took a few days to decide. "Nearly everybody else was full because their meets had already started. I was feeding 20-some head of horses and I had a $1,000 (per week) feed bill, and nothing coming in. The horses alone cost about $19,000 to bring up here, so its not even going to be a break even scenario."

Trejo has other ideas. "I'm going to try and break even," he said, and laughed as he added, "In this business if you break even you're doing well." So far he has lost at least $50,000.

"Racing is a gamble," said Matt, adding lots of things have changed since heyday of racing in the 1950s to '70s. "I've seen and lived my life through the heyday. I grew up in it when it was the only show in town. Now casinos are everywhere. The money is better, but there is no fan base. I hope that sometime in my lifetime I'll see racing come back with a fan base."

One thing that has not changed, said Matt, is Assiniboia Downs.

"Its been 30 years since I've been here, and this place hasn't changed a bit. You don't see baseball or football stadiums lasting 30 years (the Downs is 53 years old). They build new ones right off the bat. It would be a welcome sight if they would do that for horse racing."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 24, 2011 C5

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