Manitoba Jockey Club officials are adamant that horses will head to the post at Assiniboia Downs as scheduled on May 5 to mark the opening of what they are still hoping will be a 60-day 2013 live thoroughbred racing meet.
MJC CEO Darren Dunn said this week that there are now about 300 horses on the Downs grounds training for the upcoming meet -- about the same number as this time last year.
But most of those horses winter locally. Dunn conceded the real test of what effect the province's announcement this winter that they are stripping at least $5 million from the transfers they send the Downs every year is having will come in the next couple weeks, a period that horses, trainers and jockeys from other provinces and countries would normally be arriving.
Dunn said the Jockey Club is bracing for the worst. After what was an optimistic start to the track's annual winter recruiting efforts, Dunn said the silence has been deafening ever since the province told them that they will be removing the track's 140 VLTs that have traditionally generated the revenue the Downs needs every year to cover purses.
"We'd been doing our recruiting just like we do every winter and let's just say that prior to this announcement, prior to the end of January, our phone was ringing off the hook," said Dunn. "I'm not even kidding -- it was like, 'Wow, we're getting some serious interest this year.'
"And then the phones stopped ringing, literally the day after this announcement came out. We hit a brick wall in our recruitment from a horse and jockey standpoint like I've never seen before.
"It's one thing to ask everybody in the province for more belt tightening and it's another to threaten to interrupt 60 per cent of someone's revenue. That's a company killer, that's an industry killer, that's a 'You're not welcome in Manitoba anymore' statement in my opinion.' "
The Downs will need a minimum of 500 horses on the backstretch to stage a viable race meet, with 600-700 a more preferred number.
Dunn said the province's decision to remove VLTs from track property has also decimated the already fragile Manitoba breeding industry. "People don't want to put money into breeding if they don't know there's going to be a track to race at in a couple of years when those yearlings grow up," he said. The cruel irony is that the province has done this at precisely the time it is about to enjoy an unprecedented and historic moment in the international spotlight.
Goldencents, a three-year-old bay colt out of a Manitoba-bred mare, was the impressive winner of the Santa Anita Derby last weekend and will be among the pre-race favourites when the Kentucky Derby heads to the post in Louisville May 4.
It's the first time in memory that a horse with such deep Manitoba breeding connections will race in the world's single most famous horse race and such an extraordinary spotlight -- particularly if Goldencents, winner of four of six lifetime, goes on to win the race -- would in a normal year be expected to provide Manitoba breeding an unprecedented growth opportunity.
The only outstanding wrinkle is that the province has not appointed a new chairman for the Manitoba Horse Racing Commission -- the last one, David Miles, has resigned -- or hired the stewards that must be in place in order for live racing to take place, which the Downs argues the province is bound by law to provide.
A provincial spokesman said late Friday afternoon that the province intends to have the necessary appointments in place for the start of the 2013 live racing season.