Assiniboia Downs gets green light to begin 2020 racing season, modified for coronavirus

Supplied Photo from Assiniboia Downs .

As Manitoba continues to ease coronavirus restrictions, Tuesday was a good day for Assiniboia Downs.

CEO Darren Dunn received the news he and the thoroughbred racing industry had been waiting for — the official go-ahead from the provincial government to live race in 2020, albeit without the public present.

Darren Dunn/Supplied Photo from Assiniboia Downs
Darren Dunn/Supplied Photo from Assiniboia Downs.

“It’s something we had advocated for and were prepared to move forward with, based on models at other race tracks across North America,” said Dunn on the 680 CJOB Sports Show a few hours after getting the good news.

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“It’s a sense of relief to have the ability to officially race.

“Make no mistake about it, the financial challenge continues for our industry, but this will go a long way in starting the healing process in that area.”

The 2020 season opener will take place on Monday, May 25 and Dunn admits the Downs will have a different feel to it with the coronavirus protocols in place, and no fans in the grandstands.

“We’ll have essential staff on site which is a scaled-down version of what we normally have,” says Dunn. “There will be masks present, hand sanitizing, social distancing, temperature checks and more.

“Everything we can to make sure that our staff are safe and the operation of live racing is moved forward — similar to what we’re seeing at other racetracks. Efficiently, carefully, safely — and still with great competition.”

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Dunn estimates 30-40 per cent of the horsemen at Assiniboia Downs are from the United States. With the Canadian border continuing to be closed to non-citizens, it will be a while before that situation is resolved, but according to the former Downs Track announcer, there is no problem with having enough real stars of the show. “We have been able to successfully get a number of horses up and we’ve been over-subscribed, if you will, for stall space, based on the lack of live racing going elsewhere. We have some first-mover advantage and a situation where we have more than enough horses to be able to put on a competitive race meet.”

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Dunn readily admits there is going to be a significant challenge with 140 VLT’s remaining closed, the loss of food and beverage sales on-site, the lack of facility rentals and other revenue-generating streams that go hand-in-hand without patrons at the track. But somewhat of an equalizer will be the “unique positioning” of Assiniboia Downs live racing signal. “What we are able to do is take our television broadcast and sell it literally all over the world,” explained Dunn. “So throughout Europe, throughout North America — we get a percentage for doing that. And we’ve adjusted our live race calendar to be able to achieve that.”

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Traditionally, Assiniboia Downs has raced on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday nights with the odd Sunday or Monday holiday afternoon thrown in on special occasions. With no fans present, there is the flexibility to move around that schedule to Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday night’s at 7:30 p.m. “with the idea of minimizing the competition from other race tracks against that live race signal that we intend to sell,” adds Dunn.

Racing fans can still get their fix from a safe location by wagering on their phones, tablets, mobile devices. Dunn says telephone-account wagering will be an easy process to complete on the track website at “We have a system called HPI, Horse Player International. It’s Canada’s leading on-line wagering platform for live horse racing and we’re connected to it.”

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Supplied Photo from Assiniboia Downs. Handout/Assiniboia Downs

Dunn says on-line betting is a format racing fans should get used to, and they have. “No question it continues to be that way. And specifically mobile. We have a large fan base that continues to grow. We continue to buck that trend, increasing our audience, on-track and abroad.”

Dunn says the live stream broadcast gives patrons the chance to experience the excitement remotely, in large part because of the visual stimulation, and live wagering in real-time.

“Wave from the Perimeter when you drive by.”

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