Jockeys and trainers at Assiniboia Downs not discouraged by unstable season
WINNIPEG -- The 2020 race season has been anything but stable for Assiniboia Downs. The track was on of the first, and few to hold races during the COVID-19 pandemic.
While it is experiencing a record year when it comes to gross wagering with fans going online to place their bets, officials say revenue is down “significantly” from years past resulting in a 20 per cent reduction in purses for stakes races.
The biggest reason for the drop off is not having any spectators for races. Jockeys are racing in front of empty seats, with only the echo of the public address announcer calling the race audible from the track.
"People who are on the backstretch that kind of know the excitement of the races and the people jumping up and down, cheering for their favourite horse, that's what we miss out on," said racehorse trainer Shelley Brown.
Jockey Antonio Whitehall is in his fifth season racing at Assiniboia Downs and says while he misses young fans greeting him after races, he has not noticed much of a difference during races and neither have his horses.
"Sometimes they are more scared with a crowd actually, so yeah, it's working out pretty good," Whitehall said.
Whitehall says his workload has also increased significantly, as many of the jockeys who normally work and race at Assiniboia Downs are not in Winnipeg this season due to the Canadian border being closed to foreign travellers. As officials say foreign riders make up about half of the jockey colony.
"With all these changes, it means there are less jockeys and exercise riders,” Whitehall said.
"So, us jockeys have to train ten times harder in the mornings to bring the horses through the morning paces and stuff like that to get them fit for the races."
Whitehall says the extra work has not bothered him. Working seven days a week, the 26-year-old from Barbados says he narrowly missed the travel ban and says the extra time with the horses has actually helped him improve.
"I'm benefitting from it because it's getting me fitter, I'm staying on my game and I'm getting to spend more time with the animals," He said. "I ride at night time so I get to form a bond."
Assiniboia Downs, despite the shortfalls so far this season, says it intends to host all 50 races scheduled this season, including the 72nd running of the Manitoba Derby in August.