Aiming sky high at Downs

SCOTT UNGER -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 7:10 AM ET

Darren Dunn has seen tremendous growth during his time at Assiniboia Downs and that continues to be the case this summer. But, with the 50-year-old infrastructure that currently houses the Downs, the potential horse racing has in Winnipeg is quickly reaching its ceiling.

"We have tight margins to work with to say the least and a tight ship to run, but we've been able to do that," said Dunn, director of operations at the Downs.

"The quality of horses that ran here this year and are on the grounds still are the best we've ever had, easily. In saying that though, our entire program is on a bit of a holding pattern though while we wait for the results of a review and a study issued by the government.

"We have great aspirations, but we need some opportunities to grow further. Otherwise we are going to be in a plateau situation."

Due out later this year, the bulk of the study deals with developing the Downs into a premier gaming and entertainment facility, which the track needs in order to compete with the other high-end entertainment venues in Winnipeg, such as the MTS Centre, CanWest Global Park and a possible new home for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

"We need something that can drive revenues, drive growth and we don't have those opportunities right now," Dunn said.

"The gaming and entertainment industry is unbelievably competitive. Even in Winnipeg alone, in the summer time we compete against other sporting venues, all kinds of festivals."

The study aside, Dunn feels this summer, so far, has been of the one of the most successful at the west Perimeter track under his watch.

'REMARKABLE'

"We had one of the most positive Manitoba Derby days we've had in years and maybe even a decade when you have wagering of $475,000, well over 6,000 people and a day that was remarkable weather wise, field wise and competition wise," he said.

And the success has been more than a one-day event. The jockey and trainer standings have been spirited all summer, outside of wily veteran Alan Cuthbertson, who has a 27-win lead.

"While Alan Cuthbertson leads the way by a country mile, it's still very competitive in there," Dunn said.

The scary incident in which jockey Carlos Marquez was lost for the season when a horse flipped over on him in June 30 aside, the jockeys have remained relatively healthy.

"The fact we can maintain 20 jockeys this late in the year is very hard to do," Dunn said. "That in itself is a feather in our cap that we've be able to look after them. They feel like they've been able to earn their keep and earn their opportunities."

In the stables, there have been more than enough options for bettors.

"We've had a very large horse supply, which now, as it usually happens, starts to trickle down as horses hit the sidelines due to injury or development issues," said Dunn.

"We may have put up some of the largest field sizes in the history of the Jockey Club this year. ... The races have been competitive and it's everything that you want in that sense."

So now the question remains, how high can Assiniboia Downs go? How high can the ceiling be jacked up?

"We'll never get to the level of Woodbine (in Toronto). That is probably very unrealistic," Dunn figures. "Will we ever been the second-best race track in Canada? Absolutely. Could we be a marquee draw for a large surrounding area? No question about it. We've seen it in other markets."


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