Assiniboia Downs – Concert City Extraordinaire

Aug 25, 2023 | ASD History

Eagles concert at Assiniboia Downs – June 28, 1978 Dave Johnson / Winnipeg Free Press

by Bob Gates

In the late 1970s and ‘80s Assiniboia Downs developed quite the reputation for hosting concerts as part of the marketing of its horse racing. For the price of admission to the races, you got a pre-race concert thrown in at no extra charge.

Bob Wright, son of Downs owners Hazel and Jim, grew up on a farm outside of Calgary and moved to Winnipeg when the Wrights purchased the Downs in 1975. In our never-ending quest to learn as much as we can about our Portage Avenue track history, we reached out to Bob.

Bob is retired and living in Victoria these days. Some of you may be surprised to know that a while back he took up running marathons, an interesting hobby for a man who is now in his 70s.

Before getting to the concerts how about a word or two about Bob? You name a position at the Downs and Bob held it. He wasn’t one for titles, but over the years he was Director of Operations, Controller & Executive Assistant, Vice President of Operations, Vice President, President & Director of Mutuels. Bob did anything and everything to help his parents run the racetrack. We’re told that he even called the odd race!

Who Knew? When Bob and wife Carol were married all those years ago, Barry Anderson, Manitoba Jockey Club Secretary, was their best man.

The concerts were used as a “loss leader” to attract a younger generation of fans. They were offered at no additional entrance fee other than that for a regular card of racing. The hope was that the crowd would stay for the races and come back as a “standalone” entertainment option. Generally the concerts would draw 7,000 to 10,000 people, when the average race-only attendance was ranging from 3,000 to 4,000.

Bob had difficulties recalling any significant concert memories, after all that was more than 40 years ago. Perhaps he blocked them all out after having to deal with one too many requests for red-only M&Ms for the dressing rooms?

Following a lengthy search of the history blog photo archives, we have unearthed some treasured memories of concerts held at the Downs in the late 70s and early 80s.  Please enjoy and see if you can spot yourself in the crowd.

Photo #1 – Eagles: July 27, 1978

Eagles concert at Assiniboia Downs – June 28, 1978 Dave Johnson / Winnipeg Free Press

So right off the hop, we start with the exception. This concert wasn’t free and didn’t happen on a race night, but it was Winnipeg’s first major concert and drew approximately 27,000 fans. So we just had to include the event as part of our Downs concert photo blog. Billed as “The Midsummer Nights Dream” rock extravaganza, it was the largest music event that Winnipeg had ever seen, and it took place at Assiniboia Downs. For $13.00 you were entertained by headliners the Eagles and Steve Miller Band with Jesse Winchester as the opening act.

Photo #2 – Carroll Baker

Carol Baker

Canada’s Queen of Country performed at the Downs on three occasions, June 16, 1979, May 25, 1980 and May 20, 1981. The Downs quickly found that country music and horse racing was a great fit – all for the general admission price of $2.25.

Photo #3 – Charlie Daniels Band: August 1, 1979

Charlie Daniels Band

Southern rocker Charlie Daniels showed off his country music roots and that was more than enough for an exuberant crowd of cowboy hats and even a few confederate flags who seemed to out-number the die-hard race fans.

Photo #4 – Sha Na Na: August 6, 1979

Sha Na Na

Sha Na Na

Once again, serious horse players seem to disappear in the crowd as Sha Na Na played to its legion of fans. An audience of all ages filled the tarmac and the grandstand to capacity and resulted in the largest single day attendance record in the history of the Downs. Concert goers and race fans combined for 13,276 spectators.

Photo #5 – Ray Price: September 13, 1979

Ray Price

Country music legend Ray Price took the stage, and your $2 admission cost covered the show and the races that followed. This concert stood out for Bob, who explained that his father loved Ray Price. Bob recalled that his dad sang along with every song. After the show Price sat down with the Downs owner and reminisced about “The Great American Songbook”.

Photo #6 – Louise Mandrell: August 10, 1983

Louise Mandrell

Louise Mandrell

During the peak of her career, American country music singer and baby-sister of her more famous sibling, Barbara and other sister-actress Irlene, stopped in at the Downs. Here she is shown getting up-close and personal with her adoring fans.

Photo #7 – Juice Newton:  August 1, 1984

Juice Newton.

Juice Newton

Ms Newton was one of those successful country-pop crossover singing stars.  Attendance figures were more than sufficient to prove that she was one of the finest raw talents on the country-pop music scene as 9,666 witnessed the “Queen of Hearts” show as part of the Wednesday night eight-race card.

Photo #8 – BTO: August 19, 1984



A crowd of more than 10,000 ate-up everything that Randy and Tim Bachman, Fred Turner and Garry Peterson delivered. A Sunday afternoon crowd rocked and rolled to one of Canada’s greatest bands of the 70s. It was one of those Sunday afternoons that race patrons and concert goers will not forget anytime soon.

Bonus Photo #9 – Dr. Hook: May 13, 1979

Dr. Hook

This is the show that set the concert wheels in motion. It was the first in a series of what was called “musical experiments” conducted by the Downs in an attempt to attract the younger generation to the racetrack. For a first effort things turned out well, as the modest crowd of 700 or 800 enjoyed the antics of lead singers Dennis LaCorriere and Ray “eye-patch” Sawyer.

Here are a few more concert names that also played the Downs, that you may recall. In 1979 there was also Burton Cummings and Johnny Paycheck, in the ‘80s we had the Bellamy Brothers, Chilliwack, Doug and the Slugs, Ronnie Hawkins, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Three Dog Night and Hank Williams Jr. and we’ll stop there.  Oh yes…

The mind is awash with sweet memories of Winnipeg summers and race day concerts past!