Assiniboia Downs survives fan-free 2020 season thanks to surge in online wagering

Darren Dunn, chief executive officer, is photographed at the track at Assiniboia Downs in Winnipeg Monday, May 25, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

When the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic started to sink in, Darren Dunn began to worry.

It quickly became clear to the longtime CEO of Assiniboia Downs that large gatherings would not be allowed for the foreseeable future.

That led to an obvious question: how were they going to make any money this year?

“It was the equivalent to a bomb being dropped on our industry and our revenue model,” Dunn said.

“Our 140 VLTs were turned off like a light switch. Our food and beverage was completely upside-down.

“Our facility rentals, a robust part of our business, immediately went dormant.”

Shuttering the track completely was not an option. Instead, they decided to alter their race schedule to capitalize on the booming industry of online betting and the ease through which people around the world can stream live racing.

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Read more: ‘One for the history books:’ Horse racing back but without crowds at Winnipeg’s Assiniboia Downs

Traditionally, the Downs runs on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday nights. In 2020, that was changed to Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights, and it worked.

In 2019, $12.4 million in wagers were placed on horses at the Downs. This year?

“Total wagering on Assiniboia Downs live product was $63.2 million,” Dunn said.

“The all-time record occurred in 1981, over a 135-day race meet, at $53.4 million. Fast-forward to 2020, only 50 live race days. To do $63.2 million is incredibly satisfying. Unexpected, to be honest.

“Although it’s a very small margin we retain on that — to be clear, we’re not swimming in the cash. But it did allow us to return to stability, that stability that was taken away by COVID-19 in March.”

Considering how dire the summer once looked for the Downs, Dunn can’t complain about where they’re at heading into 2021.

“We essentially, completely changed our business model,” Dunn explained. “We created almost like a cyber race meet, based on some models we had in the U.S. It had so much success selling our signal globally, showing Manitoba to the world.”