Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

More giddy-up at Downs in 2009

Racing fans will see something new under the sun at the track this season

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They've got a new look, new schedule, new approach and a bold new brand as Assiniboia Downs opens its 51st season of live thoroughbred racing this weekend.

In what is the most dramatic reshaping of the Portage Avenue racetrack since it first opened back in 1958, Downs management on Wednesday unveiled sweeping changes for the 2009 meet -- from the cancellation of Sunday racing and the addition of a Wednesday card to a shorter meet to the adoption of new colours and a new identifier -- they believe will help them weather the economic storm befalling all racetracks right now.

Underlying the changes at the Downs, which have sparked some backlash from longtime patrons, is the belief that if thoroughbred racing is to survive in this province it will have to grow outside the province.

And that means tailoring the track's schedule, meet, look and name to the huge audience of gamblers who bet on horse racing across the continent via simulcasting.

"The growth potential," Downs operations director Darren Dunn told a news conference, "is literally limitless.

"While the growth for racing here in Winnipeg is very limited."

The most significant change for the-coming live meet is the cancellation of live racing Sunday afternoons.

The Sunday cards have traditionally drawn the biggest crowds at the Downs, making their cancellation a bit of a head-scratcher at first for a track that struggles -- like all racetracks -- to stay relevant in an age when gambling opportunities are almost limitless and disposable income in is ever shorter supply.

But while attendance on Sundays was traditionally strong and the dining room always full, Downs management found the Sunday cards were often money-losers, with many of the patrons who showed up simply taking advantage of free admission and free family activities while not lining up at the betting windows.

When combined with huge competition for the simulcast dollar on Sundays from much bigger and better- known tracks, the result was the most popular day in terms of attendance for the Downs was also the day the track generated its lowest handles.

So after surveying the track's patrons, the corporate community and other racetracks, Downs management decided scrapping Sundays and replacing them with a Wednesday card -- when there is very little competition for the simulcast dollar and when corporations would prefer to have company outings over Sundays -- was the move to make.

The response has been positive so far from other tracks, who have already signed up to take the Downs' signal on Wednesdays in such far-flung places as Arkansas, Florida, Texas, Quebec and Oregon.

The response from fans -- and there's been lots so far -- has run about 4 to 1 in favour, says Dunn. And he joked that the Downs may be ahead of its time, with Churchill Downs -- the home of the Kentucky Derby -- also recently announcing that they are dumping some popular afternoon cards in favour of chasing more simulcast dollars in the evening.

"Clearly," Dunn joked, "Churchill Downs was taking the lead from ASD."

Simulcast

Which gets us to the other big change -- ASD. As part of the move to target the simulcast dollar, Downs management has decided to rebrand itself by the three-letter moniker it is referred to as in the Daily Racing Form over what is a difficult name for many Americans to pronounce -- and which is commonly mispronounced as Assin-oh-boy or Assini-boyn.

As part of the rebranding, the track has also traded in its traditional green colour scheme for a bold red and white they believe will help them stand out on TV screens.

While they have cancelled live racing on Sundays, there is one exception -- opening day this Sunday, which falls on what is annually the second-most popular day of the Downs meet after Manitoba Derby Day, Mother's Day.

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca

 

Ch-ch-ch-changes

FOR a sport dripping with history, there are certainly a lot of changes in store this summer for local fans of live thoroughbred racing.

Here's a snapshot of what's new at Assiniboia Downs this summer:

With the exception of this Mother's Day, there will be no Sunday racing this year.

Live racing will run Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays and holiday Mondays, as well as Tuesdays during June and July.

The live racing meet has been trimmed from 70 days to 65 days to cut expenses.

Expect to see the track identified everywhere by a new moniker -- ASD.

As part of the name switch, the track has adopted red-and-white colours for everything from staff uniforms to the starting gate, toteboard and finish line.

Labour Day will be a ball, with the Downs offering all kinds of specialty races -- from a two-furlong sprint, a gruelling 1-3/4 mile marathon, a race entirely of grey horses to a 'rocking horse' race restricted to only horses 8-and-up.

Jockey Alan Cuthbertson will be back to try and win his fourth straight riding title but he'll have big competition this year from Gary Baze and wife Vicky. Baze is cousin to the great Russell Baze and Vicky Baze is the fourth leading female rider of all time.

-- Wiecek

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 7, 2009 C5

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