Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Nearly dead foal, nearly dead racetrack both thriving

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The odds against survival appeared, at first glance, to be astronomical.

Where there's even a glimmer of life, however, there's hope.

While a sheen of frost had already formed on the coat of the partly frozen newborn foal lying in the snow at Leona Stahl's feet on that bitter -38 C February morning in 2011, the steam that continued to rise from the baby thoroughbred's body indicated some warmth remained and maybe, just maybe, there was some hope yet.

 

"If it had been out there another half hour, it would have died for sure," Stahl recently recalled. "But at that point, I wasn't even thinking about survival. I just wanted to get him inside as soon as possible."

The horse -- bred to rich bloodlines by Winnipeg entrepreneur Phil Kives -- had been abruptly born in a pasture at Kives's K5 Stables, just north of Assiniboia Downs, sometime earlier that morning. Stahl, who helps run Kives's longtime thoroughbred-breeding operation, cannot be sure exactly how long the foal had been exposed to the elements because no one actually saw the horse's mother, a well-bred mare named Officer Mission, give birth that morning.

That's because Officer Mission wasn't supposed to give birth for at least five more weeks and what occurred that morning wasn't even technically a birth, Stahl says, as much as it was a spontaneous abortion.

Baby horses seldom survive such a scenario, even in ideal circumstances. And lying unprotected for an hour or so in -38 C weather is the opposite of ideal. Stahl says she resolved that morning if the horse was going to die, it wasn't going to be without an epic fight.

So, Stahl says, a co-worker at K5 threw the 150-pound foal over his shoulders and ran across the pasture to the warmth and safety of a nearby barn.

Blow dryers were gathered and used to thaw the horse. Too weak to eat on his own, his mother was milked and then a syringe was used to feed the horse manually. The hand feedings would go on for five days and nights, touch and go the whole time.

"I didn't know how it was all going to turn out," Stahl said. "But I figured that anything born in that kind of weather and with that will to survive would be something pretty special if we could get it to the racetrack."

 

What Stahl couldn't have known that cold morning three years ago was the miracle horse, who would affectionately come to be known within the tightly knit Manitoba horse-racing community as "Frosty," was to be just a small part of a much-larger struggle for the survival of the entire Manitoba thoroughbred industry.

A decision by Manitoba's NDP government in the winter of 2013 to remove the province's VLTs from the track and starve the Downs of the VLT funds the Portage Avenue facility -- like most racetracks in North America -- needed to survive would bring the track to the brink of closure.

To be sure, there had been other close calls over the years for a Manitoba thoroughbred industry that has struggled to stay relevant in an age when you can gamble online on seemingly everything except the two mice running across your kitchen floor.

Even a track that had twice previously gone through bankruptcy proceedings had never come this close to closing. Even as the Manitoba Jockey Club launched a multi-pronged legal offensive against the province in a bid to keep its VLTs, MJC officials talked privately last year about how the affairs of an industry with a spectacularly rich history dating back over 100 years in Manitoba might be wound up.

They weren't dead yet, any more than the frozen foal lying in that field in February. But they could see it from where they were.

In an industry built on gambling, this wager looked like the longest odds of all, taking on the full weight of a provincial government determined to drive the Downs out of business as part of a cynical government plan hatched behind closed doors to turn the track's valuable Portage Avenue property over to the neighbouring Red River Exhibition.

You know how often the little guy beats the government in that situation? Roughly about as often as a frozen foal comes back to life.

 

Stahl figures it was about a week-and-a-half after Frosty was discovered in the field that his ears fell off.

He was eating on his own by then and he appeared on the way to making a full recovery -- with the lone exception of those frost-bitten ears.

"They just kind of folded over," Stahl said. "And there was nothing we could do. We tried everything."

While his ears were lost -- just small cat-like nibs remain to this day -- Frosty survived and grew against all odds into a racehorse.

He was eventually given a racing name -- Dixie Mission -- but he took longer than expected to get to the racetrack, despite his regal bloodlines.

Was it the ears? No, Stahl says the main problem was a colt who was once too weak even to feed, had grown too strong for his own good and had taken to throwing any rider who dared try to mount him. They changed his exercise riders and jockeys, Stahl says, almost as often as they changed his horse shoes.

"He's got personality for six horses, I'll tell you," said Stahl. "He's a little bugger."

 

The Downs, of course, also survived against all odds to race again this summer. With the MJC's various legal actions slowly working their way through the courts, the province capitulated earlier this spring and signed a new 12-year VLT agreement with the track that buys the MJC time to pivot from being a racetrack to being an entertainment destination.

Towards that end, the MJC has signed a deal with the cash-rich Peguis First Nation to build a hotel/convention centre on vacant property adjacent to the track. A casino someday -- as part of the new complex -- would be nice too, but both parties say it is not necessary to make their plan financially viable.

The hotel itself, they believe, will be a magnet for tourists passing by on the nearby Perimeter and Trans-Canada highways, not to mention all the families in town for hockey tournaments at the neighbouring MTS Iceplex.

Construction plans are being drawn up this summer, but progress is slower than some in the racing industry had hoped for and the project is still not nearly shovel-ready.

In the meantime, racing goes on and it has been -- at times and against all odds -- a spectacular success. While the MJC doesn't track attendance -- admission has been free for years -- the main level and second-floor clubhouse have been packed at times this summer like it seldom has been in recent years, with the exception of the annual Manitoba Derby Day.

Wednesday evening racing -- an innovation introduced just a couple years ago in a bid to attract more simulcast betting on a night that is quiet at other racetracks across North America -- has proven to be a stunning success locally, particularly for corporate events, and is now often better attended than Friday or Saturday race cards.

Responding to the big demand for mid-week racing, Downs management has put marquee races on the Wednesday card that used to be reserved only for weekends. One recent Wednesday, for instance, included a packed house for the runnings of two $30,000 stake races, including one that was the final prep-race for this year's $75,000 Manitoba Derby.

The prep was won by a Florida-bred horse named Edison, who was shipped in from the United States just for the race. Sold as a yearling for $950,000 thanks to a big-name sire in former Preakness Stakes winner Bernardini, Edison was the most expensive horse in recent memory to grace the Downs track.

Big crowds, big-name horses: It would seem on the surface like the Downs has not only survived their brush with death, it's actually thriving this year. As usual when it comes to the Downs, it's more complicated than that.

Terrible spring weather set back training. The threat of closure last winter meant the meet started with significantly fewer horses than usual.

The result has been some cancelled race cards and smaller fields than usual this year -- and with correspondingly smaller handles too. Average wagering per race this year is $16,953, down 4.9 percent from $17,828 last year. But that's to be expected given the average field for a race at the Downs this year is also down -- from 6.98 horses per race last year to 6.24 horses per race.

Then there's the track's strained relationship with a provincial government that is not only its regulator, but also its chief competitor. How bad is it? Well, Downs management offered Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries Corp. the naming rights to this year's Manitoba Derby -- rights the Crown corporation has for a decade paid "five figures" annually to secure -- for free.

Lotteries officials passed.

So, yeah, some impressive crowds and big-name horses this year, for sure. But business as usual? Not by a long shot.

"When you come out of what was for all intents and purposes a war, no matter what side you come out on, you're damaged," explains Downs CEO Darren Dunn.

"You're missing limbs, figuratively speaking. The infrastructure -- in our case, the breeding industry -- was blown up because of all the uncertainty that was created. And our reputation beyond our borders was damaged, beyond a doubt, as it relates to horse recruitment.

"When you get a reputation in this industry for instability, you can't rebuild that overnight with a stroke of a pen or a handshake and an agreement. And you can't make a racehorse overnight, either.

"It's going to take years to rebuild -- the breeding industry and our brand."

 

Still, how perfect is that -- a horse missing its ears running at a racetrack missing its figurative limbs?

"He's the poster child for this place, he really is," said Stahl.

"He's one of those against-all-odds stories," said Dunn. "He had all the potential in the world and went right to the brink. And now he's back. And while maybe he's not as whole as he once was -- and neither are we -- he's still got the spirit and the drive and that Manitoba enthusiasm."

After sitting out his two-year-old campaign, the most instantly recognizable horse in thoroughbred racing finally made it to the track this year. Running against the most talented maidens on the grounds, Dixie Mission recorded two seconds and a third before going backwards in his last start, finishing a well-beaten seventh.

That's not exactly the Disney ending to this tale everyone was hoping for, anymore than signing that new VLT agreement with the province this spring has suddenly paved a road to prosperity for the Downs.

Then if it were easy, it wouldn't be horse racing, a sport that even at the best of times is incredibly hard -- and often downright brutal. In what other mainstream sport, after all, do the competitors regularly die during competition?

You want a Hollywood ending? Go to the movies.

In horse racing, sometimes just surviving is the biggest victory of them all.

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @PaulWiecek

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 30, 2014 D3

History

Updated on Wednesday, July 30, 2014 at 8:21 AM CDT: Changes headline, replaces photo, adds photo

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