Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Downs running on empty

Government promises have fallen by wayside, track in trouble

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With the provincial election set for Oct. 4, this is probably a good time to remind Jim Rondeau, the NDP MLA for Assiniboia, of an announcement on May 6, 2009, at a press conference announcing the opening of the thoroughbred racing season at Assiniboia Downs.

Rondeau used the opportunity to say it could be only a matter of days before a deal between the NDP and the Downs, that would secure the long-term viability of the race track, would be announced. "I was hoping a week ago we could make the announcement" he said from the podium. "I understand the announcement is imminent."

To this day, the Downs still has not secured any long-term viability. Now, with the possibility that there could be a new provincial government, Harvey Warner, president of the Manitoba Jockey Club, might be having to start negotiations back at square one.

In 2008 the NDP did an economic impact study on Assiniboia Downs, showing that major upgrades were needed for the 53-year-old track. The government also said it would expand or upgrade the 140-machine VLT lounge. Neither has been implemented, even though the study also found that the race track has an economic impact in the province of $50 million annually.

The sad truth is that horse racing, which has been around in Winnipeg since Robert Speers leased St. Boniface's River Park in 1922, will not survive if the Downs cannot compete on an even footing with casinos.

"If you look at a gaming magazine that shows you the gaming pie in any province or state," said Warner, "it'll show you how much comes from VLTs, table games, lotteries, etc., and horse racing is, if you have ever seen a sliver in a pie, that is it."

The last estimate put forward for upgrading the grandstand was around $6 million, but that's the tip of the iceberg.

"There's a number of things," said Warner. "As you drive in you'll see we need improved lighting. The race track lighting also needs improvement. There are issues around the barns, and there are also sewer and water issues that need upgrading."

All stakes purses, with the exception of the $75,000 Manitoba Lotteries Derby, have dropped. Even that, however, was $100,000 only a few years ago. What that means is not as many of the higher quality horses are coming here. "We found that when we had the $50,000 stakes right across the board, the guys from Canterbury (Minneapolis) came in for the $20,000 allowance prep races for the stake. So people travel for those kind of things, but when you are looking at the core of your business being the blue-collar horses, those are the ones you have to kind of look after, and the core of our purses is not bad."

With the House currently down, Warner says that nothing is happening at this time. "We were making some efforts to get a few of the short-term things done, prior to them shutting down. But the only one that did come through was a tweak in the funding arrangement. That was something that got us by this year.

"We'd be better off for the government to say, 'we have some concerns about the industry, so we are going to put this plan together and give you 10-15 years to run with it.' If it doesn't work then maybe it's time to put out the lights."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 12, 2011 C5

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