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The prevailing thoughts and feelings of people associated with Assiniboia Downs come straight from the horse trainer's mouth.

"We're here. We wanna run," Shelley Brown said Thursday from her office in the backstretch barn area. "We want to race, really badly."

And they plan to, starting May 24. Indeed, it's a later-than-usual start for the Downs' thoroughbred racing season, officially the 63rd for the oval on the city's western edge. But it's far better late than not all in 2020.

In fact, the Downs will, in all likelihood be the first major racetrack in Canada to hold live racing, although the not-for-profit Manitoba Jockey Club operation will do so with empty stands, owing to the coronavirus health crisis.

"No people cheering or banging the race program on their leg," said CEO Darren Dunn. "It's not the same as standing six feet away, leaning on a fence, hearing the sound of the horses thundering by.

"But we're trying to be as creative as we can, as the little race track that could, to keep things as viable as possible."

"We're trying to be as creative as we can, as the little race track that could, to keep things as viable as possible," CEO Darren Dunn said.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

"We're trying to be as creative as we can, as the little race track that could, to keep things as viable as possible," CEO Darren Dunn said.

A month ago, the fear of scrapping the season entirely was all too real. But the easing of provincial health restrictions imposed in March to slow the spread of the COVID-19 has worked in the track's favour.

"I think it's a reflection of what we've all done in Manitoba, both on a personal basis and a corporate basis, to achieve this flattened curve to allow for an opportunity," said Dunn.

"Make no mistake about it, we are still getting hammered from a revenue standpoint, relative to no VLTs, no food and beverage. To race with no fans on site, the impact on our revenues will be massive."

About 50 full- and part-time workers were laid off in March, and only a fraction of the usual 150 additional workers required during a regular May-to-September season is being hired. The coronavirus threat has staggered what was already a fragile business.

"I'll say this, we're going to suffer a significant seven-figure revenue impact," Dunn said. "Right now, everything you can do to control expenses we're doing."

The hope is showcasing racing online and offering cyber-wagering through the HPIbet platform will help ease some of the financial hit. The Downs will broadcast its racing cards —Wednesdays, Friday and Saturdays and a few holiday Sundays and Mondays — locally, national and internationally, attracting fans to watch and wager online.

Sidney Blackwood (left) and Antonio Whitehall take their horses for their daily workout Thursday morning at Assiniboia Downs.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Sidney Blackwood (left) and Antonio Whitehall take their horses for their daily workout Thursday morning at Assiniboia Downs.

"It's attracted other bettors as well, because they can't really bet on anything else. You can't bet on hockey or basketball, so those people that are bound and determined to gamble, here you go," said Brown. "We have something for you."

This season, Brown's 12th in Winnipeg, will be a racing season like no other.

"Unprecedented. It will have a totally different feel with no fans here," said the track's 2012 trainer of the year. She arrives for work at the usual, though unimaginable time of 3 a.m., to begin preparing her horses — 35 in her stable, many local and some from Florida — for their morning workouts.

Track operators have done a great job of keeping workers and visitors to the expansive property healthy and safe.

"We've already gotten used to different protocols here, getting our temperatures taken at the gate, keeping distance between us, not gathering in the kitchen, hand sanitizing, just a lot of things we've had to adjust to," said Brown.

She made consecutive southern road trips, trailing horses to the Manitoba capital, and had to endure a 14-day quarantine when she returned from her second run to the Tampa area.

"Make no mistake about it, we are still getting hammered from a revenue standpoint, relative to no VLTs, no food and beverage. To race with no fans on site, the impact on our revenues will be massive." – CEO Darren Dunn

"It drove me nuts," Brown said, noting a return to the stables April 7 coincided with her birthday. "It was the best present ever. I brought a cake to the barn and celebrated with my staff and the horses."

With the border closed, there is no large influx of horses from the United States, although the stables will still be busy. Currently, there are 263 horses on site, with upward of 300 more from across Canada coming here by opening day.

The Downs' jockey colony is comprised of riders from Western Canada, a contrast to a normal year when most riders would come from Venezuela, Barbados and Jamaica. While most foreign workers are stuck at home unable to travel, Barbadian Antonia Whitehall reached Canada before travel restrictions were imposed.

The 2018 champion rider said he's fired up for another season, despite the extraordinary circumstances.

"I love it. This is my racetrack," the 27 year old said. "But it will be different. All my career, everywhere I've been in the world, there's always been fans. This is going to feel like a trial, like a morning workout. This year, stick to the same plan, work hard, stay focused and win lots of races."

"I think it's a reflection of what we've all done in Manitoba, both on a personal basis and a corporate basis, to achieve this flattened curve to allow for an opportunity," said Dunn.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

"I think it's a reflection of what we've all done in Manitoba, both on a personal basis and a corporate basis, to achieve this flattened curve to allow for an opportunity," said Dunn.

Brown said she's watched broadcasts from southern tracks operating with no fans to get a feel for what life will be like this season.

"I still have one horse in Tampa right now, he ran and I got to watch it on TV and saw what the trainers are going through there, all wearing masks and gloves coming to the paddock area," she said. "It's an adjustment we're all willing to make for the betterment of everyone, just trying to keep people safe."

There are few silver liners to the new way of doing business. In Brown's line of work, it's ideal to have a few extra weeks to prepare her horses for the starting gate.

"We definitely don't feel as much of a rush to push the horses. We'll put a few more miles on them before we start putting the heavy pressure on them, especially the ones wintered here in Winnipeg," she said.

Horses have been training since March 1, and those early morning sessions are being broadcast for the diehards on the Downs website and on MTS-TV.

"It's quite a feat to get a race horse ready from March 1 and be ready to race around Mother's Day — which is usually our opening day — to get them ready and conditioned properly. To be honest, it's almost to an advantage to start a little later for those horses."

jason.bell@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @WFPJasonBell

Jason Bell

Jason Bell
Assistant sports editor

Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).

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