Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Horsemen in full gallop

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The first of 60 days of live thoroughbred racing will go to post at Assiniboia Downs this Sunday afternoon.

The fact there will be racing at all this year is no small miracle, given the provincial NDP's move in last month's budget to strip the Downs of $5 million a year of revenue, representing the lion's share of the money the track generates from their 140 VLTs and a parimutuel tax levied on every horse racing wager.

But what's just as surprising is that after an initial lull created by the uncertainty generated by the government's plan to bankrupt the Downs and give their land to the Red River Exhibition, trainers and owners from across North America have given the track's plan to survive by entering into a development partnership with Peguis First Nation a big vote of confidence in recent weeks.

Downs CEO Darren Dunn said Thursday a total of 550 horses are on the backstretch right now, with about 100-150 more expect soon, which would be more than the track operated with last year.

"I'm not afraid to tell you, I will be raising a nice tall drink in celebration at the end of what I'm sure will be a very long day on Sunday," Dunn said after an opening news conference on Thursday to unveil details of the new meet.

Dunn said NDP MLA Jim Rondeau was invited to attend Thursday's news conference, but he declined. Opposition leader Brian Pallister did attend, however, pledging his support for the Downs and scolding the government for developing its plan for the Downs in a "backroom... on a cocktail napkin."

Longtime trainer Emile Corbel said that after some initial trepidation, he decided to once again set up shop at the Downs this summer with his standard stable of 20 horses.

"I kind of wondered at first what was going to happen, but the jockey club seems to have a pretty good plan in place to make this work. I believe in them," Corbel said.

The track will have several new promotions this year, including a unique new $6 "combo wager," as well as popular longstanding promotions including five Las Vegas trip giveaways, VLT and poker tournaments, racing seminars for newbies and five 'Family Fun Days.'

Post times will be a half hour later this year than last year -- primarily 7:30 p.m. on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, 1:30 p.m. on a handful of Sundays and holidays. Track officials said that move was made to generate more simulcast wagering.

-- Wiecek

more horse racing coverage C5

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 3, 2013 C1

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