Manitoba Harness Racing At Assiniboia?

Published: January 30, 2013 03:55 pm EST

It has been reported that the Red River Exhibition Association is looking into taking over operation of Assiniboia Downs and incorporating live harness racing to the raceway's on-track offerings.

A pair of reports broke the news this morning (Wednesday, January 30), stating that the province is planning on reducing the size of the grant that the Manitoba horse-racing industry annually receives. In response to news of the cuts, which are expected to become official this spring, RREA CEO Garth Rogerson has stated that if his group is allowed to take over control of the money-losing thoroughbred raceway it will attempt to "save the taxpayers $5 million a year and operate it successfully."

Rogerson's comments come courtesy of an article by the CBC, which explains that the RREA is looking to convert Assiniboia into an entertainment centre. In addition to being able to offer two breeds of live racing, the Exhibition Association is looking to also host concerts and monster-truck shows at the track. According to the CEO, the events would make up for the reduction in government grants.

The CBC also quoted Rogerson as giving a very blunt statement about the future of Manitoba's harness-racing industry if the proposed move does not go through. "When these budget cuts come down, I know for sure harness racing will be bankrupt," Rogerson said. "Harness racing will be finished in the province. And I'm pretty sure Assiniboia Downs will be bankrupt."

The CBC report also states that the Manitoba Jockey Club, which owns Assiniboia, is shocked over the news. Noting that his organization's budgets have been approved and that the organization is apparently "out of the loop," MJC President Harvey Warner was quoted as saying, "It certainly was a shock since there's been no communication as far as any impending proposed changes," adding, "nobody's indicated anything to us."

A report on the situation by The Winnipeg Free Press contains quotes from Manitoba Finance Minister Stan Struthers indicating that he is in favour of the private sector analyzing the situation and assessing the opportunity as one worthy of investment. In regard to the RREA's vision for Assiniboia Downs, Minister Struthers said the Manitoba Government thinking the plan has "strong merit."

"In the uncertain economic times in which we live, we have to be thinking creatively in terms of reducing the amount of taxpayer support and also putting forward a multi-use plan that will contribute to our provincial economy. We think this plan can do that," The Winnipeg Free Press quoted Minister Struthers as saying.

"If we can bring down the cost of government and ensure the long-term viability of horse racing and a multi-use facility like this, I think that's a good thing."

According to the The Winnipeg Free Press report, Warner is calling foul on the way the situation has come to a head. Also, the MJC would have to sign off on the agreement if it is to come to fruition.

Commenting on the perceived closed-door nature of the RREA/Province of Manitoba Assiniboia plan, Warner said, "If that's what they're looking at, I would call it slew-footing. Has anybody approached us formally about it? The answer is 'no.'

"And not to deal with us (MJC) upfront? That's going to be a tough one to swallow if that's the way they're dealing with things."

(With files from the CBC and The Winnipeg Free Press)