by Bob Gates
Like a Timex watch, the Downs takes a licking and keeps on ticking. The most recent peril began with the following announcement on March 18, 2020:
"With the intent to be proactive and to do our part to pull together with our fellow Manitobans to assist in preventive measures to address the COVID-19 situation, Assiniboia Downs is announcing that we will be closing our facility to the public effective at midnight tonight. "
Two days later the Manitoba government declared a province-wide state of emergency to protect the health and safety of Manitobans and reduce the spread of COVID-19.
When the Downs opened live racing (with no spectators) on May 25, 2020 the facility had been shuttered to the public for 68 days. While the closure to the public is ongoing, the races continue weekly on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday evenings.
On Wednesday, July 14, 1982 Princess Anne was to attend the races as a part of her two-week Canadian Tour. She was to present a trophy for the inaugural running of the Princess Anne Stakes, but dark financial clouds loomed.
Prior to the royal visit, rumors of the track’s closing were rampant. The Winnipeg Free Press reported that the Downs was facing foreclosure. Then at 1 p.m. on July 14 Assiniboia Downs closed just minutes before Princess Anne’s arrival in Winnipeg. The cancellation of Wednesday's card wiped-out the much-awaited Downs' evening with a princess.
Following intense negotiations, Manitoba Minister of Economic Development and Tourism Muriel Smith announced that the province would put up $750,000 to operate the track for the balance of the season. The day-to-day management of the Downs was turned over to Jim Wright and the track reopened July 23, 1982.
An early morning blaze on May 17, 2004 claimed the Downs aging press box. The million-dollar fire destroyed the race-day operation centre, rendering racing impossible. In a whirlwind effort the Downs had a temporary press box in place and the track was up and running again on May 28, 2004.
Here is a smattering of other memorable events that caused the Downs to cancel racing:
June 18, 1969 - The first time a race was cancelled. A power failure cast the track into darkened "tunnels" on the clubhouse turn, backstretch and the stretch from the eighth pole to the sixteenth pole. There was insufficient daylight to run the final race of the night.
July 6, 1977 - The first time in Downs' history an entire race program was cancelled. The track had suffered through some wet weather and the racing surface was not the best. Heavy rains on Tuesday turned the oval into a treacherous mess and the Wednesday card was called-off.
The 1991 season endured some frightful fall weather. The season came to a merciful end on November 11, but for five consecutive days high winds, freezing rain, blowing snow and unseasonably cold weather resulted in the cancellation of race-cards on October 30, November 1,2,3, and 6. The 118-day season was proof that if you're going to race in November in Manitoba you run the risk of challenging weather.
Then there was the heat wave of July 2007. The July 24 card was cancelled due to extreme heat. Temperatures reached 34°C and when adjusted for the humidex topped out at 43°C. This cancellation was the first of its kind and was obviously in the best interest of the horses and those who worked with these precious athletes.
The final cancellation we will look at came on June 26, 2009. On this night, valet Andy Neufeld suffered a fatal heart attack during the Friday card. It was an emotional night for Andy's friends and colleagues. You hear the word "family" used a lot in terms of the workplace, but on this night, Assiniboia Downs was just that, a family.
Andy's coworkers were visibly shaken and caring for high-strung runners was perhaps too much to ask. The "little track that could," the track with a "heart," stepped-up to support its family and cancelled the 7th and 8th races.
The Portage Avenue track has more than earned the right to wear the "little track that could" moniker with pride. Like that trusty watch, Assiniboia Downs has withstood the test of time.
And it just keeps on ticking.