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Plans For New Track In Manitoba

Published: February 19, 2021 11:34 am ET

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A Winnipeg developer has plans in the works to put the Standardbred sport on the map in Manitoba's largest city within the next year — and there's nothing standard about his approach or his vision.

Garth Rogerson, CEO of the not-for-profit Red River Exhibition Association, is leading the charge to expand harness racing in Manitoba beyond its current rural footprint. And while many existing facilities either feature racing as the lone attraction or relegate it to a mere afterthought, Rogerson envisions a setup where the races aren't necessarily alone in the spotlight, but still an integral element of a greater entertainment experience — much in the same vein as minor league sports.

"I played baseball ... and I really enjoyed it," Rogerson told Trot Insider. "But watching it? It's not for me."

Yet, on the occasion he is invited to attend a Winnipeg Goldeyes baseball game, he finds himself enjoying the total experience — despite the game being less satisfying for him as a spectator than a participant.

"I go there and I have a fantastic time, and I sit back and go, 'Why did I have a fantastic time watching baseball?'" he explained. "It's not because of the baseball. It's because of all the other stuff going on — there's great food, great activities, and — oh, by the way — there's a baseball game on.

"So, I took a little bit of that back, and I said, 'You know, we can do that same kind of thing with harness racing.' Harness racing has a bit of a bad rep here in Manitoba, which I don’t think is justified. Those that enjoy it love it, but others are maybe not as willing to give it a shot, right? So what we have to do is reintroduce the public to the sport, and the only way to do that is to draw an audience. And so, if we can draw an audience, I think they’ll buy into it like I have and enjoy it."

Rogerson believes that packaging harness racing as part of a larger entertainment experience can help the races be a worthwhile investment for both the Exhibition and the horsepeople who ultimately put on the show, and the Exhibition grounds — located on the west edge of the city — offer just the infrastructure to accommodate his vision. But for that vision to even reach the cusp of reality has taken years of planning and massive effort to achieve the necessary buy-in from all parties involved.

"I've been working on this thing since 2013, so it's been a bit of a long haul," Rogerson said. "I've worked with the industry, worked on a couple studies with them — the future of the industry, you know. It's been really challenging in Manitoba. As we worked through this thing, it really became clear that the only solution (for the harness racing industry) is a track in Winnipeg. We have a major market, and the markets in rural areas are really drying up."

Despite Assiniboia Downs being literally across the street from the Red River Exhibition grounds, the studies that Rogerson mentioned led the Exhibition site to be the ideal location for a new harness racing track in the province.

"Actually, the consultants in the end recommended the racetrack at the Red River Exhibition site," said Rogerson. "I spent time talking to the consultants, so then when they went out and did their visits, I gave them a little bit of groundwork so that they knew what to look for and what they could expect so they weren’t going in cold. Then, in the end, I encouraged them — because I wanted a fair assessment — to look hard at Assiniboia Downs and talk to them because if there’s an opportunity there, great! I just want the industry to have a place to survive and grow. So whether we do it or they do it, I’m just happy either way. And so in the end, they came back and recommended the Red River Exhibition site, and we’ve taken that and moved forward with it ... I’ve spent a lot of time working with those guys and coming up with something that works for everybody. I’m not going to make everybody happy, but I think we can deliver something and grow the industry."

Once the Red River board of directors granted their approval in early 2020, Rogerson set out to build the actual track itself. And despite the pandemic forcing the cancellation of the association's annual 10-day fair and summer carnival at the Exhibition — and, in turn, the association's main economic driver, Rogerson and his crew pressed on as best they could with the resources — and time — at their disposal.

"We started construction last summer," explained Rogerson. "It was supposed to start first thing in the spring because I wanted it ready for the fall, but then COVID hit and I got a little nervous because our fair got cancelled and everything, so I was freaking out a little bit. We got a little bit into the summer, and the construction season is so short, and I said, 'What am I doing? We’ve got to get this thing going. And just because COVID’s on, we can’t stop our business.' So I scrambled, got some contractors in, and we did a significant amount of groundwork. Pretty much the base work is complete."

Rogerson invited some Manitoba horsepeople to survey the track in the fall, and they were "suitably impressed" with the progress. Once the weather breaks, Rogerson envisions that the remaining work on the track can be completed in time for Standardbreds to begin using it as early as this fall.

"I have the construction companies booked for first thing in the spring, so we’ll be back on that surface," he continued. "I don’t think it will take very long to get it complete. Of course, the challenge is to support the building — the track surface isn’t the only thing of course. But we already have a very large barn that we use for a paddock; we have test barns. We’re in pretty good shape, I think, to be running some test meets in the fall of 2021 — just to make sure that surface is going to hold up, then launch racing in spring 2022."

Rogerson's vision is neither short-term nor short-sighted ... it's clear he and the Exhibition are playing the long game. And the support and buy-in Rogerson has received from area horsepeople for a track to complement the province's existing footprint in Miami has been a boost as well.

"They’re kind of excited about it," he said. "I think they look at me with a little bit of skepticism because they’ve been sold a bill of goods in the past too. But that’s why I invited them to come out (to the track). I said, 'Come out and walk this thing. You don’t have to take my word for it. Let’s go for a walk.' And I had the guys out, and we walked the surface, they were like, 'It looks like something, eh?' So it was a good go in that respect, and I think they’re pretty positive."

Trevor Williams, President of the Manitoba Standardbred Racing Industry Inc. (MSRI), echoed that sentiment.

"Obviously this new track is huge for us. The horsemen in general in Manitoba have to be literally the most resilient people in the world," Williams told Trot Insider. "It’s a wonder how everybody has hung on this long.

"We've had run-ins before with potentially getting back into Assiniboia Downs or potentially a track being built in Brandon at one point...It's kind of kept everyone hopeful that there is something and that we're working towards something bigger, but it just never happened. To go there this winter and walk onto the Red River Ex grounds and see a track there...maybe not time to pop the champagne bottle yet because we haven’t raced. But we can exhale; breath a little bit. It’s huge, huge news. We’re fortunate enough to be working with a great organization in Red River Ex, and their vision is the same as ours and more. It’s really unbelievable."

Current plans are to introduce live harness racing to the Winnipeg market in conjunction with the 2022 Red River Exhibition, an event that is likely to attract over 200,000 people through its 10-day run provided restrictions are lifted and attendance reaches pre-pandemic levels.

"If I can put thousands of people in front of that track — and that’s a great way to launch it, introduce a whole new audience to the sport that probably has never seen it before or has no idea," Rogerson said. "Representing it in a fun, exciting, dynamic way."

After the initial launch during the 2022 Exhibition, race meetings with what Rogerson terms "mini-fairs" can help maximize the sport's visibility to a largely new audience and give it the trajectory it needs to grow in an entertainment sector overflowing with options.

"Here’s the thing: there will never be a race when there isn’t something else going on," he explained. "We’ll either have a big fair or some other kind of activity because the audience is so skeptical and there’s so much competition — like everywhere, it’s just crazy competition. So to break through that noise, you’ve got to have something else going on."

If the new track takes hold as Rogerson envisions, it has the potential to be a win-win situation for the Exhibition and Manitoba horsepeople. But Rogerson explains that the growth has to be gradual to be sustainable:

"We’re going to build slowly. We’re going to get into this thing for $2 or $3 million, and then build it over time so that we can deliver something that is pretty cool, and it’s going to be financially positive. Because the other side of it is, like I said to the guys, really we only have 10 days of racing here, so I’m not building this thing for 10 days of racing. That’s a joke. And the only way we’re going to get more than 10 days of racing is we’ve got to get the horse population up, but the only way we can do that is to get purses up. The government is not fully committed to supporting that, so we have to build a business that can support that increase in purses so that we get interest and guys start breeding horses or bringing them here from out of province.

"It’s a much broader plan.... I’m going to have snowmobile racing in the winter time, and going to have all sorts of other stuff going on. It doesn’t rely on harness racing to make a profit, but at the same time I’m not getting into this to run something that’s not going to be a successful business. So, it’s sort of a little bit different take on that."

Ultimately, while the vision of introducing harness racing to Winnipeg has been spearheaded to this point by Garth Rogerson, the ability to execute such a plan is thanks to the willingness of Manitoba's horsepeople to try something different.

"The only reason it’s possible is because of the guys that are leading that industry locally, guys like Trevor [Williams] and so forth," Rogerson said. "These guys, the passion they bring to the table is unmistakeable. And it’s because of that that I’m able to dream big and those guys are going to help me pull it together, because I can’t do it myself."

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