Controversial race and ruling taint Assiniboia Downs Bizarre finish brings integrity of local track into question

Something stinks at Assiniboia Downs, and it’s not coming from the barns where the stars of the show reside.

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Opinion

Something stinks at Assiniboia Downs, and it’s not coming from the barns where the stars of the show reside.

However, bettors around the world likely feel they’ve been fed a steaming pile of horse dung regarding a bizarre finish to a race last week that left some feeling the fix was in.

I don’t blame them. Nor does Downs CEO Darren Dunn, who is running hot after Manitoba’s gaming regulator found no deliberate wrongdoing. Integrity is everything in the sport of kings, and you can see why Dunn and company are furious about an unnecessary spotlight that has been put on the local track.

To understand what occurred, I take you back to Race 5 of the July 20 racing card. King Witt, who came to the post as the second choice in wagering (3.75-1), opened up a commanding lead in the 7½-furlong maiden race and appeared to be galloping to an easy, dominant victory.

As he approached the final turn with a nearly five-length advantage, he suddenly drifted out and slowed down considerably. Five horses who had been eating his dust easily passed him, prompting Downs track announcer Kirt Contois to declare, “King Witt is done.”

At that point, you’d assume the three-year-old had emptied the tank or broken down. Hey, it happens. Instead, jockey Sheldon Chickeness went from pulling up to cracking the whip, kicking King Witt into high gear and nearly catching eventual winner Mucho Express before settling for second place.

All of which had many up in arms over what they’d just witnessed. Mucho Express was the third choice in the wagering at 5.65-1 and looked to have been gifted a trip to the winner’s circle and the $10,000 purse. It should be noted that Zuri Risasi, the 7-10 favourite, was never a factor and finished sixth of eight runners.

Some were demanding a lifetime ban for Chickeness — who has nearly 2,800 races on his resume since 2001 including 297 winners and more than $1.5 million in earnings – particularly after a video clip of the race went viral. ASD has made massive strides in the past couple seasons in terms of attracting a worldwide gambling audience, leading to record handles. It’s the reason they’ve shifted to a Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday race week, to maximize when eyes will be on the product. In this case, that meant added scrutiny.

Jason Halstead/ Assiniboia Photo

Mucho Express, ridden by jockey Antonio Whitehall (right), runs to victory in the fifth race at Assiniboia Downs on July 20, a maiden claiming race with a purse of $10,000. King Witt, ridden by jockey Sheldon Chickeness (left) finished a close second, after pulling up while leading down the stretch.

“What doesn’t help the jock is the fact he kept looking over his shoulders numerous times. I get something was amiss at the top of the stretch, but it looked like whatever happened he was shooting to be 2nd or 3rd,” said one Youtube viewer.

Said another: “It’s too bad. Me and my dad have played ASD every day since the end of last season and can confidently say we won’t wager another dollar at that track after seeing that (last Wednesday) night.”

An individual on Twitter noted: “A person who has never watched a horse race could tell something was wrong with that race.”

Well, not quite everyone, apparently.

Dunn released a statement the following day, questioning why no stewards’ inquiry took place into King Witt, who is led by three-time ASD Trainer of the Year Jerry Gourneau.

“When I watched the race in real time, my first reaction was that the jockey was pulling the horse up due to a potential injury.” – Darren Dunn

“When I watched the race in real time, my first reaction was that the jockey was pulling the horse up due to a potential injury. When the jockey re-engaged the horse after the balance of the field caught up and then began to aggressively ride the horse to the finish line, the sudden change was very concerning,” said Dunn.

The Manitoba Jockey Club, which operates the city track, immediately requested the Liquor, Gaming & Cannabis Authority (LGCA) conduct a formal review.

The findings were released Thursday, with the authority concluding that Chickeness committed no offence worthy of a fine or suspension for his actions. They cited interviews with witnesses and analysis of video and wagering data, saying “no rules of Thoroughbred racing were violated and, therefore, no adjustments to the order of finish are required.”

What a bunch of BS.

That prompted Dunn to take the unusual step of publicly condemning the findings, taking issue with Chickeness’ strange explanation and his assertion he purposely slowed down for the safety of the horse.

YOUTUBE

As Sheldon Chickeness on King Witt (1) approached the final turn with a nearly five-length advantage, he suddenly drifted out and slowed down considerably.

“King Witt, to our understanding, may have previously exhibited tendencies in how he navigates the turn for home and the early stretch drive of the racetrack that caused the jockey to believe that with a potential repeat of those tendencies, the safety of the other horses and jockeys in the race were in jeopardy and that this was reflected in his actions, exhibiting his concern,” Dunn said in a statement.

Dunn said Chickeness “over-compensated” and his actions affected the outcome of the race and finishing order. For that, he should be forced to pay a price.

“And, while we will always support and encourage efforts of jockeys to be safe in the saddle for themselves, their fellow riders and the horses in the race, a distinction, in our opinion, should be made when these actions occur and then affect the possible and likely ultimate outcome of the race through an overreaction by a jockey,” he said.

“We believe that, while consideration and understanding could be given to his safety intent, overriding this was the need to protect the wagering public in ensuring the integrity of the race remained intact and that the over-compensation by jockey Sheldon Chickeness should have been met with a determination of significant discipline against him.”

“We believe that, while consideration and understanding could be given to his safety intent, overriding this was the need to protect the wagering public.” – Darren Dunn

I’ve been going to the Downs since I was a little kid and can’t recall anything quite this blatant happening. Nor can former Free Press sports columnist Paul Wiecek, one of the foremost experts on the industry in this province. Now retired, I reached out to Wiecek on Thursday for his take.

“I land in the same place I always did when it came to suggestions of impropriety/race fixing by jockeys. And that is: If there is a question of whether a jockey’s behaviour at ASD was sinister or incompetent, it is almost always incompetent,” Wiecek told me.

“Fixing an eight-horse race is crazy hard and none of these guys at the Downs are smart enough to pull it off. If they were, they wouldn’t be racing in Winnipeg. And even if they were, it’d be insane to do so for the penny ante purses at the Downs. Having said that, (Dunn) makes an interesting point. The jockey’s behaviour was so glaringly incompetent that it clearly altered the finishing order of the race and placed the integrity of racing in disrepute. The regulator has the power to issue a remedy in cases like that but appears to have chosen, instead, to simply rule on whether the fix was in or not.”

It’s hard to say just how damaging this might be for ASD. No doubt they’re hoping people vowing to never spend another penny at the track are just bluffing, and the situation quickly blows over. Regardless, it’s a terrible look.

I’m not so sure the overriding stench of scandal will go away anytime soon.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

History

Updated on Friday, July 29, 2022 10:49 AM CDT: Corrects reference to Zuri Risasi

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