Assinboia Downs is racing to start up again — and may become the first horse racing track in the country to do so during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In just two weeks, jockeys will be competing at the Winnipeg horse racing track three nights per week — but the stands will remain empty.
Downs CEO Darren Dunn said the track got the nod from the province on Wednesday under “refreshed” public health orders.
Manitoba began relaxing some of its pandemic restrictions on Monday, as part of a multi-stage reopening plan.
That plan states that large gatherings and events in the province won’t restart until September at the earliest.
But the track will be allowed to hold competitions — without the public present — at the gaming and event centre, located on the western outskirts of the city.
“I’m confident we will be the first race track in Canada to open a live race,” Dunn said.
Horse racing has been going on safely in other jurisdictions around the world for the last month, according to Dunn.
“We’re aware of the protocols [elsewhere] and we were prepared to mirror those,” he said.
“We were going to be able to do just that and the government obviously agrees.”
Bets can be still placed, but Dunn said that will be hosted online, instead of the traditional in-person betting.
Although the races will be broadcast as usual, it will be odd, Dunn said, not to have any fans in the stands.
“It’ll still be a high-end broadcast and exciting starts and finishes, and there’ll be a winner of every race,” he said.
“The difference would be, I guess, just getting used to not having the roar of the crowd in the background and … the fans waving and pumping their arms.”
The track, which normally opens from May through September, was originally set to open for the season this Sunday.
Dunn said the new “hopeful” opening date is May 25.
Races are scheduled for Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m.
Although financial challenges will continue to create hurdles for the industry, the news that the track will be able to reopen is like a “ray of sunshine in a cloudy sky,” Dunn said.
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The track hopes to draw interest from fans locally and abroad who are keen to see live racing on the interactive wagering forum the Downs will use.
Dunn said he has seen it used at other similar sized tracks in the U.S.
“The amount of interest, the amount of wagering dollars has been significant. Now, you only get a small piece of it, and it is a small margin,” he said.
“But it’s revenue in the door, and that’s something that we have very little of right now.”
Dozens of horses from Manitoba are already training on the back stretch, Dunn said, and he expects that number will double in the coming weeks, with more animals coming from across Western Canada now that he has the green light.
A scaled-down crew of only essential staff will be allowed to care for the horses after hand washing, sanitation, temperature checks and answering questions to identify possible exposure to and symptoms of COVID-19.
The track’s entertainment centre, which is operated by the Manitoba Jockey Club, will remain essentially closed, with its restaurant open only for take-out orders.
Races are expected to run until Sept. 15.
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