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Manitoba Jockey Club could lose horse-racing licence over deal with Peguis

By Jim Bender,Winnipeg Sun

The Manitoba Horse Racing Commission has threatened to suspend the Manitoba Jockey Club’s 2014 race license if it is not more forthcoming about plans for its property.

In fact, the MHRC advised the MJC on Tuesday that it has suspended consideration of its license and, as a consequence, simulcast betting at Assiniboia Downs may be halted on Jan. 1, 2014.

The MJC has until the end of the year to satisfy the MHRC’s concerns.

“We haven’t suspended the license but we aren’t in a position to grant one,” said MHRC chair Tom Goodman. “Quite by accident, we came across a $15-million mortgage and it refers to a joint venture agreement (with Peguis First Nation) and we asked for a copy.”

The MHRC did not get an immediate response last week, so it issued Tuesday’s release.

“Our concern is that this joint venture may be a vehicle to convey ownership of the Downs (from the MJC) and any transfer of ownership must be approved by us,” Goodman said. “Perhaps, it’s all innocent with nothing inappropriate going on. We just want the MJC to explain as we have an obligation to fulfil.”

The notice came two days before the Downs was about to announce a joint venture with Peguis First Nation that would keep the local horse racing industry alive, and an MJC rep was incredulous.

“I personally called their lawyer (Monday) to tell them they would be getting their answers today,” said MJC lawyer Jeff Rath, adding that the MHRC could have issued an interim license.

The agreement with Peguis involves a portion of land between the IcePlex and the grandstand at track.

“This is well outside the jurisdiction of the (MHRC) as it only involves commercial land that has been for sale for eight years,” Rath said.

The MJC had been negotiating with Peguis even before former NDP Minister of Finance Stan Struthers had announced plans to cut its funding by $5 million a year.

“This is all part of Stan Struthers’ promise to (MJC president Harvey) Warner that there would be no approval of an agreement if Peguis First Nation was involved,” Rath said of the alleged warning by Struthers. “That’s one of the few promises that the NDP intends to keep.”

However, a spokesperson said NDP had nothing to do with MHRC’s advisory.

“The Horse Racing Commission is an independent body from government and any decisions they make, are made solely on their part,” the rep said in an e-mail.

Nearly a year at the races:

Early January 2013: Province reveals it will consider a deal for the Red River Exhibition to take over the horse-racing track and land at the site, one that the Ex claims will save the province $5 million in annual funding.

Jan. 30, 2013: Letter from Minister Stan Struthers alleges MJC was working with Peguis First Nation and the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs in 2012 on plans for a hotel and conference centre. MJC estimates that venture would have doubled VLT revenues to raise $5 million to $6 million more for the province each year.

March 28: MJC sues province to avoid takeover.

April 12: MJC launches ad campaign against NDP.

April 16: VLT cuts to MJC announced in budget.

May 6: Judge orders province to turn over cash for 2013-14 fiscal year to MJC. Province claims victory, too, saying they'll move ahead with legalizing cuts.

May 27: MJC sues Struthers for conflict of interest.

June 7: MJC sues Minister Jim Rondeau for conflict of interest.

Nov. 16, 2013: Bill 47 passes, cancelling MJC's VLT revenue going forward (once it reaches royal assent).

Nov. 21, 2013: Suits against Struthers, Rondeau rejected by judge.

Dec. 17, 2013: The Manitoba Horse Racing Commission threatens to suspend the Manitoba Jockey Club's 2014 race license if it is not more forthcoming about plans for its property.

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