The fields were small but the crowd was big as Assiniboia Downs opened the 2014 live thoroughbred season on Sunday.
The effects of an extraordinarily late spring that delayed training and all the uncertainty of the past 16 months created by a funding dispute with the province meant some unusually small races as the Portage Avenue racetrack kicked off its 60-day live season.
Four of the eight races on the opening card featured just five horses -- a number considered the bare minimum to stage a credible race that allows all forms of wagering. Of the other four races, three had six horses and one had seven.
But while there were fewer horses on the track than usual, the crowd that turned out for opening day was a good one. While the track has no turnstile to keep official track of attendance, the Terrace Dining Room was sold out and the second-floor clubhouse was packed all day. On-track bettors wagered $66,051 of a total handle of $125,464.
'We're trying to run a racetrack in the Arctic. I don't recommend it'
The Don Gray Memorial Purse -- the first race at the Downs every year, named in honour of the longtime late Downs trainer -- was won by 11-time leading trainer Ardell Sayler. Sayler's Jumpin Jennie, with Christopher Ho aboard, covered four-and-a-half furlongs in 54.00 seconds and paid $5.70 to win.
Sayler said the day's short fields were the inevitable result of all the uncertainty the province created when it attempted last year to bankrupt the track by tearing up a longtime VLT agreement. "There was just so much unknown about the Downs -- would it keep going, would it not keep going.
"But I think it will get better."
Downs CEO Darren Dunn warned last week it would be "a few weeks before we can put our best foot forward" and he expanded on those comments Sunday.
Dunn said the current horse population on the backstretch numbers 450, about 100 short of the 550 usually on track property on opening day. Dunn said it was difficult last winter to get horsemen to commit to coming to the Downs this spring in the absence of a funding arrangement with the province and litigation before the courts.
But Dunn said that's now improved as news has spread throughout the racing world of the new 12-year VLT agreement the track signed late last month with the province.
The other challenge in rustling up entries, said Dunn, has been the unusually cold weather this spring, which delayed the opening of the main track and put training schedules behind as much as three weeks.
"We're trying to run a racetrack in the Arctic. I don't recommend it," Dunn laughed.
The other person laughing on opening day -- but for entirely different reasons -- was Ho, who only decided 10 days ago to move his tack from West Virginia to Manitoba.
It proved to be a profitable move immediately. Not only did Ho bring home the winner in the opener, he added another winner in the fourth at long odds, piloting Lia Rocks to a win that paid $41.40. And he completed the hat trick in the sixth race, riding A Hi Five to a win that paid $14.20.
Put it together and Ho won three of his first five mounts ever at the Downs. "It's been a good day. The weather's been great, the horses have been live. I'm just grateful for the opportunity."
Ho said he decided to move to Winnipeg after speaking to Sayler's son, Aaron, who is currently working at West Virginia's Charles Town, where Ho used to be based. "He said his father wanted me to come up and ride for him. And so I figured I'd give it a shot. Business down there was pretty tough, so it was an easy decision."
While the early results were impressive, Ho said that -- as usual -- it was more about the horse than rider.
"It's always easy when the mounts are live and you've got the horse underneath you. This is a tough (jockey) colony. I'm going to need the right horses to win races here," he said.
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