Assiniboia Downs may have won its most recent — and high-profile — battle with the provincial NDP government, but the thoroughbred racetrack remains locked in a fight with the province.

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Assiniboia Downs may have won its most recent — and high-profile — battle with the provincial NDP government, but the thoroughbred racetrack remains locked in a fight with the province.

Executives with the Manitoba Jockey Club, the non-profit group that owns the track, have demanded the province remove the chairman and vice-chairman of the Manitoba Horse Racing Commission, accusing the two men of using the powers of their office to make track operations too difficult and too expensive. The horse racing industry provides work for more than 400 people and funnels about $40 million annually into the economy.

It’s the first time in the 57-year history of the Portage Avenue facility that the track’s ownership has demanded its regulator be fired and it is doing so with the full support of thoroughbred owners and trainers, who have drafted a petition in support of the MJC position that calls for the removal from office of MHRC chairman Tom Goodman and vice-chairman Brian Billeck.

"The Manitoba Horse Racing Commission has gravely damaged the horse racing industry in this province by their actions while in office. They do not represent our interests and the best interests of this industry and must be replaced immediately," reads the draft petition written by the executive of the local chapter of the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, which represents the track’s 600 owners and trainers.

It doesn’t appear as if that’s going to happen. A spokesman for the province last week issued a terse response to a lengthy list of questions — including whether the province continues to support Goodman and Billeck — submitted by the Free Press. "The Horse Racing Commission is an independent body. We do not interfere in the decisions made by the commission," Caedmon Molowany, a spokesman for Agriculture Minister Ron Kostyshyn, wrote in an email April 15.

The Free Press made multiple attempts to get comment from Goodman and Billeck through Larry Huber, the executive director of the MHRC. Huber said he forwarded interview requests to both men — which included questions also asked of the province — but neither responded.

The MHRC is a provincially appointed regulatory body that oversees all aspects of the horse racing industry in Manitoba. The chairman and vice-chairman have no fixed term and can be removed by the government at any time.

MJC officials insist that time should be right now. "The board felt the need to reach out to the province as a last resort as the working relationship with the MHRC has been poor," said Downs CEO Darren Dunn.

"We offer suggestions, ask questions for clarity on issues and receive little to no response in many cases. We feel our opinion and extensive operational experience is largely ignored. With the negative impact on revenues and stability, we believe, based on some of their decisions, our board felt they had a responsibility to act."

There is little the MJC can do if the province refuses its demand.

The security gate vehicles pass through to get into the Assiniboia Downs backstretch area.

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

The security gate vehicles pass through to get into the Assiniboia Downs backstretch area.

Formed in 1965, the MHRC is a powerful body that oversees the running of race tracks in Manitoba though, unlike other racing commissions in North America, its mandate does not include promoting the industry.

Because horse racing was for decades the only form of legal gambling in Manitoba, there were once serious fears of mob influence and corruption in the industry, reflected in the MHRC’s powers.

Some of those powers can seem almost draconian today: the commission has warrantless search-and-seizure powers over the property and persons of just about anyone connected to the Downs and live racing.

Its relationship with the Downs for much of the last 50 years has been mostly co-operative, with the MHRC acting as a regulator and mediator of disputes, while leaving much of the day-to-day operations to Downs ownership.

Until now, that is.

The province appointed a representative to meet with the Downs this month and the MJC handed the province a stack of documents outlining its problems with the MHRC.

As of Friday, the MJC had still received no response from the province.

The MJC has myriad issues with decisions and orders that the MHRC has handed down since the Downs went to war with the province in 2013 over the NDP government’s decision to strip the track of its VLTs, a move the Downs said would have effectively put the track into bankruptcy.

While the Downs won that battle — the province ultimately capitulated in the face of an onslaught of lawsuits filed by the MJC and handed the track a new 12-year VLT deal — the track’s management says the MHRC has been using the powers of the commission ever since to hand down orders Downs management says are unnecessary and making it tough to do business.

 

Here’s a partial summary of their concerns:

John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press

❚ The MHRC abruptly commissioned a structural engineer last fall to do an inspection of the track’s barn area to determine "if there are any significant areas where the buildings may require upgrading to meet safe operational condition."

The firm — Accutech Engineering — reported on Oct. 27, 2014 with a 60-page report outlining what it claimed to be deficiencies and safety hazards on the Downs backstretch.

But when the MHRC subsequently summoned city structural and fire inspectors to follow up on the engineers’ concerns, the city inspectors found almost no problems.

In an email to Dunn dated Dec. 5, 2014, Mike Clayton — the city’s chief existing buildings inspector — gave the barn area a clean bill of health, writing to Dunn that "no structural issues were found with any of the buildings looked at. There will be no orders issued from this department at this time."

Similarly, a fire inspector for the city — Peggy Prokopich — issued "no reports for the barns as there were no violations found at time of inspection."

The inspector did find seven minor code violations in the kitchen and dormitory buildings on the Downs backstretch, such as the need to upgrade three smoke alarms, repair an electrical outlet and fix a broken window.

All were quickly repaired.

But even after the barn area passed structural code with flying colours and was brought up to the city’s strictest fire code, Dunn says the MHRC continued to insist on costly repairs as a condition of issuing the track its racing licence for 2015. Dunn said the Downs ultimately had no choice but to make $300,000 of repairs to the barn area over the winter to placate the commission.

The MHRC’s demands didn’t end there. Even before a single race has run this year, the MHRC is threatening the track’s licence for 2016, demanding in a motion passed March 3 that the jockey club "provide a comprehensive plan for repair and remediation of the buildings and structures in question prior to their application for a 2016 race licence."

Blair Miller, president of the HBPA, said owners and trainers have no idea why the original engineers’ report was ordered by the MHRC, much less why the track is still being forced to make repairs even after passing code.

"I’ve never heard of a single injury to horses or people that has been caused by the infrastructure back there," said Miller. "We meet with Darren Dunn every single Saturday. I guarantee we’re the only track anywhere in North America where the horsemen meet with the CEO once a week. And if we ever feel there’s something that needs to be fixed, they do it instantly.

Assiniboia Downs employee Mel Nault attaches a sign to the backstretch area as a result of MHRC security concerns.

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Assiniboia Downs employee Mel Nault attaches a sign to the backstretch area as a result of MHRC security concerns.

Safety is paramount around here and they’ve never given us a problem getting something fixed — not once."

❚ Similarly, the MHRC last year hired a former Mountie, Pat Dauk, to do a security consultation of the backstretch area. Like the infrastructure inspection, Miller says the security inspection was a solution in search of a problem.

"Can people sneak on the backstretch at the Downs? Of course they can. Can people sneak on the backstretch at any racetrack in the world? Of course they can. It’s just the reality of how racetracks are laid out," said Miller. "But has there ever been an incident of someone coming on the Downs backstretch and hurting a horse or a person? Absolutely not — not in all my decades of working at that track."

Dauk recommended a series of very expensive upgrades, including the installation of a video monitoring system of the entire barn area that Dunn said would cost the track in excess of $600,000 to install.

The jockey club replied to the MHRC in a letter dated Oct. 1, 2014 that its security consultant’s recommendations were unworkable and pointless, not to mention expensive. Nevertheless, the Downs was informed on Dec. 1, 2014, that the commission "has endorsed the evaluation and would like to implement its recommendations."

❚ The MHRC has also seized control of post times at the Downs, a decision Dunn says has cost "millions" of dollars in lost gross handle.

The Downs, like all racetracks in North America, has for decades sometimes delayed the start of races by a minute or two to allow races at other tracks to go off so as not to interfere with simulcast wagering on Downs races.

But as of last year, the Downs — perhaps unique in all of horse racing — is no longer allowed to control their own post times and their regulator simply fixes race times regardless of what is happening at other tracks.

Dunn is likely not exaggerating. A 2011 study by Woodbine Entertainment Group found that wagering on Woodbine races dipped 34 per cent when Toronto races ran within one minute — plus or minus — of races in New York State.

❚ The jockey club says its relationship with the MHRC has degenerated to the point where Goodman and Billeck won’t even talk to the two most senior people at the Downs — jockey club president Harvey Warner and Dunn.

They point to minutes of a commission meeting on Feb. 26, 2014, which record Goodman as telling jockey club director Barry Arnason that "members of the MHRC had lost confidence in working with Mr. Warner and Mr. Dunn and asked that Mr. Arnason inform the MJC board that the commission would no longer have dealings with either gentlemen."

email: paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @PaulWiecek

Paul Wiecek

Paul Wiecek
Reporter (retired)

Paul Wiecek was born and raised in Winnipeg’s North End and delivered the Free Press -- 53 papers, Machray Avenue, between Main and Salter Streets -- long before he was first hired as a Free Press reporter in 1989.

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