By Lauren McNabb, Tamara Forlanski and Peter Chura
WINNIPEG — Assiniboia Downs horse racing track is launching a legal battle to save its betting business after regulators threatened to yank its licence Tuesday, in a dispute over an apparent development deal with Peguis First Nation.
A lawyer for the Manitoba Jockey Club filed an application Tuesday for judicial review of the Manitoba Horse Racing Commission’s threat to suspend the club’s 2014 race licence.
“Simulcast betting at Assiniboia Downs may be halted effective Jan. 1, 2014″ horse racing commission chair Tom Goodman said in a news release.
A licence suspension would be a major blow to the jockey club’s revenues.
The commission says it’s concerned about a deal between the jockey club and Peguis First Nation, under which which Peguis has extended a $15 million mortgage to Assiniboia Downs and could wind up owning the facility. The jockey club and Peguis plan a major announcement Thursday that could include a $100 million hotel and retail development for the Assiniboia Downs site.
The jockey club says the commission has no authority to take away its betting licence and accuses it of acting on behalf of the province’s NDP government to block a First Nations-backed development on Winnipeg’s western outskirts.
“It seems to me this is an attempt to prevent what is a very positive development for the city, out of spite,” said Jeffrey Rath, a Calgary-based lawyer representing the Manitoba Jockey Club.
The jockey club was already in a struggle with the province after the Selinger government decided to stop althe Downs $5 million in VLT revenue. The jockey club accused the province of backing an attempt by the Red River Ex to take over the Downs, and has taken both the province and the Ex to court.
Rath said the NDP government is opposed to having Peguis First Nation involved in ownership of Assiniboia Downs, despite the potential for development.
“They do not want a First Nation in partnership, with regard to commercial development, with the jockey club on the west end of the city of Winnipeg,” Rath said.
A spokesperson for the provincial government said in an email to Global News Tuesday that “The Horse Racing Commission is an independent body from government and any decisions they make are made solely on their part. The province was only made aware of this recent decision when it surfaced in the media today.”
Rath said the proposed development to be announced Thursday would create 1,000 construction jobs and 500 permanent jobs for Winnipeg.
Peguis is the largest First Nation in Manitoba. It is located about 145 kilometres north of Winnipeg.