Arts & Life
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It’s the morning before the horse racing season begins at Assiniboia Downs.
As expected on a non-race day, the parking lot and stands are empty. The event centre is also lifeless. There’s no one inside lining up to place a bet on an underdog, nobody slamming the buttons on the VLTs and there are no Downs Burgers on the grill.
The eerily quiet atmosphere that was felt at the track on Sunday morning is something you’d never feel on a race day, let alone the first one of the season. But that’s exactly what the vibe will be tonight when the ponies take the track at 7:30 p.m. with no spectators in sight owing to the COVID-19 pandemic. With this year having a much different feel to it, Darren Dunn, the CEO of the Downs, was asked if there’s still a reason to feel excited on the eve of the season.
"It doesn’t feel like Christmas Eve. It just feels more like the sense of a relief of a long journey, but still with a lot of miles to go," Dunn told the Free Press on Sunday.
"Just to get to this point to launch the horses out of the gate was a very trying experience. A lot of things had to go right. We’re so thrilled the government believed in our plan and was willing to support it."
Instead of 10,000 people packing the place on opening day, today will only have roughly 50 essential staff members on site. Dunn described a typical opener as "festive, fun and full of people," but there’s nothing typical about today.
"It’s not going to be festive this year. There will be an element of fun, but it’s going to be very quiet and there will be a lot of elbow space. In 38 years here, that’s something I’m not accustomed to," Dunn said.
"No roar of the crowd, no people banging the program on their leg, no yelling and screaming. It’s going to be very, very strange. I never imagined I’d be operating the Assiniboia Downs in the form of a library."
As for the jockeys and their horses, it will be business as usual. Richard Mangalee, a 33-year-old jockey from Trinidad and Tobago, doesn’t think the empty stands will have any effect on the riders and if anything, the horses will benefit from the silence.
"It might be a little better for the horses. They will be calm and more focused on what they’ve got to do. Sometimes when there’s a big crowd, they get anxious. It might be helpful for the horses, but we’ll (still miss) the crowd," Mangalee said.
"(For me), it’s basically the same thing. When you’re out there, you’re focused on riding your own horse. You’re not focused on other stuff."
With the majority of their revenue streams off the table, the Downs will heavily rely on sports bettors to help them keep the lights on. The one thing the Downs have going in their favour is the fact they’re the first race track in the country to open for business this year. Unless Korean baseball or Germany’s Bundesliga soccer is your thing, there’s not a whole lot to bet on these days. The Downs are hopeful that will lead to more eyes, and bets made, on their product.
"There’s still a lack of content out there. We should still have some first-mover advantage until other tracks come on and a lot of them will in June and progressively after that. We specifically moved our live race meet schedule to target an online audience. We would never normally race Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday at night. This is purely a televised audience, an online audience, and our strategy was totally laser-focused on that," Dunn explained.
There was a time not too long ago where the Downs feared the entire season would be lost. The fact they’re now at a point where they can have races at all is a big win, but Dunn said now isn’t the time to take a victory lap.
"There’s still a lot of concern, a lot of worries and a lot of work to be done, but this is a strong step forward," Dunn said.
"Being able to have live races begins the healing process."
Fans can place their bets and watch the live races at HPIbet.com. The races will also be shown on MTS Channels 179-180 and streamed on asdowns.com.
Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.
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