Assiniboia Downs’ racing season continues to fly by, but several issues have worked their way into this year’s racing meet, both at track level and within the backstretch.

The most pressing concern voiced by some is track maintenance. Trainer Devon Gittens, one of the track’s more prominent trainers, notes his concern. “There are a few inconsistencies; in the evening, one day it’s playing fast, the next day it’s slow. Sometimes depending on the weather, the rainfall and stuff like that obviously changes the track. So, sometimes it needs a little sealing,” said Gittens, who is also the vice president of the Horsemen’s Benevolent Protective Association (HBPA) in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Shannon Dawley, the office manager for the association. says the HBPA has been conversing with the Manitoba Jockey Club (MJC) which owns and operates the track. “The HBPA continues conversations and contact with the MJC in regards to track maintenance and track conditions,” said Dawley.

Darren Dunn, chief executive officer of Assiniboia, notes that Rick Ball is the track superintendent and expresses his confidence in his ability and experience. “Mr. Ball has been our track superintendent for the last three live race seasons and previously worked on our racetrack maintenance crew for almost ten years prior to that. Our assistant track superintendent has been a key member of our track maintenance crew for over ten years. In addition, on a related side note, I think it is important to point out a historical fact about our track maintenance leaders – they have both been a part of the racing scene here at Assiniboia Downs for close to 50 years.”

Dunn notes that both the track superintendent and the assistant superintendent are former exercise riders who understand the racetrack and “how it should be presented, feel and be prepared safely and fairly for racing or morning exercise for the horses.”

From Dunn’s perspective, the statistics also show the track maintenance team is effectively doing their job. “In a review of the statistics, the horse injury database results achieved under their leadership over the last three years, up to and including the live race night of Wednesday, July 26, 2023, has produced results that we find to be further indicative of their skill and diligence to detail: eight fatal horse injuries during a live race card from 5,960 starts for a rating of 1.34 per 1,000 starts. I would suggest that is well in line with the national average of 1.25 per 1,000 starts.

“When put against the backdrop of some of the commentary in a recent Paulick Report article about Monmouth Park by Natalie Voss on July 24, 2023, or the experience that was produced this year by Churchill Downs, though we will always desire and strive for no fatalities in our races, we find the results very acceptable,” said Dunn.

The safety and well-being of exercise riders, jockeys, and equine athletes remains paramount in this sport. Jockey Shavon Belle has ridden at ASD since 2015 and believes the track is in good working order. “It’s going great. We’ve got one of the best surfaces in the West. It dries out quickly – everything is good for the horses. It plays fair,” said Belle.

On the backstretch, another concern has been the restricted service hours of the backstretch kitchen. Currently, the kitchen is open from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m., but remains closed during Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday evenings when races are run. Assiniboia Downs is home to 142 backstretch workers, so the inability to access the kitchen on weeknights has been less than ideal.

In 2021, the HBPA noted the backstretch kitchen was open in the evening, however the hours were reduced last year, and that continued into this year as well.

“It was cancelled after COVID, and we haven’t seen it return,” says Dawley. “Yes, there are vending machines, but that’s kind of where it stands. They [MJC] see [the kitchen] as a money loss. It’s not profitable.. The HBPA continues to search into ways to improve the situation. “Essentially right now all we’ve managed to do is secure a GPS pin for Google so that delivery drivers are able to find their way into backstretch areas, as well as emergency services.”

Dunn explains MJC’s decision to schedule those respective hours was based on demand. “This schedule was created over many years, purely reflective of demand [which was tracked]. In fact, the average daily usage subsides to very minimal, if non-existent, by approximately 12:00 p.m. daily. However, we continue to keep the kitchen open, staffed and available for services through to 1:00 p.m. anyway. We also have multiple vending machines in the area available for snacks and beverages through until the building is locked up for the evening between 11:00 – 11:30 p.m.”

Dunn says the MJC has instituted “a custom 25 per cent discount to all licensed pass holders at our grandstand food and beverage areas, available seven days a week from 10:00 a.m. [when the facility opens] through until 7:30 p.m. Regular food and beverage prices return during the races, before we conclude our food and beverage service for the evening after the last race from 10:30 p.m. – 1:00 a.m. when we offer a “crazy hour” priced menu of popular offerings – very frequently utilized by our horse people to conclude their evening on live race nights.”

Another concern relates to updates and improvements to Assiniboia’s backstretch facilities. “Obviously, backstretch improvements are always high on the HBPA’s agenda – what things need to be done, what things need to be fixed, what’s working, what’s not working,” says Dawley. “We did have a meeting with the horsemen last September where we took a number of suggestions. It was suggested by MJC last season that there was money in the budget that was being put aside for specific backstretch improvements and anything specific the horsemen were looking at. We gave them a fairly decent list of where we felt the money would best be spent. Some of those projects have been completed, and a number of them have not due to scheduling and contractors – some of these projects are very large and can’t happen during race season.”

Dawley notes drainage issues have improved, and a barn roof was also repaired. Additionally, new equipment has been purchased to help with maintenance. “Our harrows have been replaced as of this season, so that’s also good.”

Dunn explains that significant headway has been made in terms of backstretch improvements. “Our backstretch barns received a significant injection of capital since we concluded the 2022 live race season [and also in recent years]. This included a full review and upgrade of electrical requirements, significant roofing improvements and fresh paint throughout most barns. In addition, major capital improvements were made during the off season to drainage requirements in strategic parts of the barn area as well as the addition of significant accessibility upgrades to enter the backstretch kitchen and race office building – which also included the addition of a brand new accessible universal use washroom,” said Dunn.

The HBPA notes that extensive road work still needs to be done. “The roads are mostly gravel at ASD: entry and access roads, the road going up to the paddock inside the backstretch. All the roadways in and around the barn areas are gravel or sand, so if they are not properly graded, they get demolished.”

Dunn also notes that “The jock’s room received new furniture and television upgrades for the 2023 live race season.”

Assiniboia’s grandstand facilities have also received a facelift. “Our grandstand lobby, lower- level entranceway, and second level entrance area all received a complete capital upgrade that included new large screen television displays, a fully replaced and upgraded accessible Guest Services area, and a soon-to-be completed upgrade and modernization of our racing history area.”

Dunn adds that in the next few weeks, long-term lighting capital upgrades to key areas of the racetrack will be taking place to improve safety for the horsemen and increase visuals for racing fans.

While the infield tote board was malfunctioning for a substantial portion of the racing meet, the issue was rectified on July 31, 2023. Dunn notes that the track has over 200 televisions for customers that “display the odds and, of course, significant additional detailed information in graphics form that a tote board does not. This includes our recent investment for the 2023 live season of adding the GMAX Equibase software graphics system that allows for real-time tracking of the horses during a race using GPS monitoring and a ‘chicklet’ display on the screens in the same format that other major racetracks use, such as Woodbine, Belmont Park, Del Mar, Gulfstream, Santa Anita, etc., furthering our commitment to modernizing and improving the experience for our customers,” said Dunn.

The CEO was also asked for an update regarding the partnership with the Peguis First Nation, which is the largest First Nation community in Manitoba. Eight years ago a partnership was announced with Peguis to build a hotel, convention centre, and other amenities on ASD land. Unfortunately, Dunn could not provide much detail at this time, responding, “We continue to value our relationship with our Indigenous Joint Venture partner, Peguis First Nation. I do not have a material update to provide at this time.”

As the season gallops on, the HBPA continues to provide a united voice for horsemen when track or facility issues arise. The Manitoba division holds several meetings during the year, including a session before the racing meet begins, a recent meeting (held Sunday, July 30), and an annual general meeting in September.

The biggest day of Assiniboia’s meet is just around the corner, with the 75th running of the Manitoba Derby on Monday, August 7. The $125,000 race is the first leg of the Western Canadian Triple Crown. Manitoba Derby day will also feature two $50,000 stakes races: the Harvey Warner Manitoba Mile and the Escape Clause Stakes.

Dunn is upbeat about Assiniboia’s racing season thus far. “Our 2023 live race season has experienced significant on-track attendance this year, including strong representation from a young audience, record or near-record wagering which has then created the environment for our continued record purses and record shipping incentives available to be offered for the horse people who race here.”