The first race won't run until opening day Sunday but the safest bet at Assiniboia Downs this year has already been laid and played.
On a day when hundreds of Winnipeg's political, business and media elite turned out at the Downs for the Portage Avenue thoroughbred racetrack's annual season opening news conference, the provincial NDP were conspicuous by their absence on Thursday.
Two city councillors, including deputy-mayor Grant Nordman, were in attendance to hear details about the upcoming 60-day racing meet. And there were no less than four members of the provincial Progressive Conservatives in the house, including Opposition Leader Brian Pallister.
But to the surprise of almost no one, the provincial government did not send a single representative to a racetrack it had tried for over a year to bankrupt, only to capitulate last week -- amidst a flurry of litigation -- and sign a new 12-year VLT agreement with the Manitoba Jockey Club.
Downs CEO Darren Dunn insisted the absence of any provincial government representation in the crowd wasn't because the track didn't reach out.
"Invitations were extended to multiple members of the sitting government of Manitoba," Dunn explained. "We were certainly optimistic, we were hopeful. The invitation was genuine, without a doubt. We look forward to working with them moving forward."
Pallister used his remarks to the assembled crowd to mock the NDP for both its absence on this day and the embarrassing policy reversal that preceded it, likening the 16-month battle between the government and racetrack to a horse race unto itself.
"At the start of it," said Pallister, "everyone thought that the NDP horse has got to win for sure. I mean, they've got 192 communication staff and all our money, so they should be able to win. But come around the homestretch, who knew that it would be the jockey club horse that would be pulling away -- and win not by a nose, but win solidly...
"All the legal fees and all the hardship that this caused the people who work here and all the emotional stress that it caused was totally unnecessary when you run a business in a professional way like this one is run."
The province abruptly announced in January 2013 it was tearing up its VLT agreement with the Downs, a move that would ultimately have bankrupted track management and forced them, the province was hoping, to turn the keys to the Downs over to a provincially favoured partner in the neighbouring Red River Exhibition.
But that plan backfired when the Manitoba Jockey Club fought back with a flurry of civil litigation against the province and even a criminal complaint to the RCMP, a legal onslaught that ultimately led the province to throw in the towel last week and sign a new comprehensive long-term VLT agreement with the MJC.
Among the others in attendance was Peguis First Nation Chief Glenn Hudson, whose reserve partnered with the Downs during all the uncertainty of the past year to build a new hotel and convention centre worth more than $100 million on vacant land adjacent to the racetrack.
While no shovels are in the ground yet, Hudson insisted plans are on track to build a project that will generate 1,000 jobs during the construction phase and employ 300 full-timers once it is complete.
Hudson said the development plans include a casino component, but his band is committed to build the project even without a casino if they cannot get government approval.
"Absolutely," said Hudson. "There's huge demand out in this area for a hotel and hospitality services. And even entertainment is something that is much needed out here on West Portage.
"What we're going to build is only going to add to the horse racing environment out here. I think people will come not only from within the province, but from outside the province as well as a destination point."
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