by Bob Gates
Have you seen him? His slicked-back black-as-night hair high atop the 60-year-old Assiniboia Downs grandstand. For the last couple of months his signature morning screams have echoed throughout the grounds as the Downs prepares to kick off Season 60.
For those who aren't sure who or what I'm talking about, I'm referring to the big old crow who has decided to make the Downs his home. He causes such a fuss that he's hard to miss, especially as the sun starts its climb into the eastern sky.
Our avian visitor is reminiscent of the Whittier Park "Clocker," the wise old crow who presided over the morning workouts from his perch in the 100-year-old elm tree in the infield at the top of the stretch of the old St. Boniface race track. I like to think that our newly resident crow is a descendant of the "Clocker," and that his morning screeches are heralding the start of the 2017 season, which gets underway this Mother's Day Sunday.
And while wandering back through history, what better way to mark our Diamond Jubilee than to look back at opening days of the past?
20 Years Ago – May 11, 1997
Water from the Great Flood was receding and 3,895 loyal patrons wagered an impressive $164,660 as the Downs entered its 40th season of operation. The star of the day was jockey Nikki Goodwin who booted home four winners on the nine-race card.
25 Years Ago – May 3, 1992
Veteran jockey Jerry Pruitt, who turns 66 on June 10 this year, was a standout with an opening day hat trick that included a stellar ride on Mr. Winston, winner of the 35th running of the Inaugural Handicap.
35 Years Ago – April 23, 1982
Manitoba-bred Northern Spike continued to set records for the Dowler Brothers. The first locally bred horse to eclipse the $100,000 earnings mark demolished the track record for four-furlongs, clipping more than a full second off the previous record of :45 3/5. Spike's time of :44 2/5 not only set a new track record, but equaled the world record for a half-mile!
40 Years Ago – May 1, 1977
An opening day record of 8,161 fans created traffic jams all around the west-end track. Vehicles were lined up north to Saskatchewan Ave. south on the Portage Ave overpass and east to Unicity Shopping Centre, causing hundreds of patrons to miss the first race. The large crowd wagered $404,200, another record for an opening day. Those were the days!
45 Years Ago – May 5, 1972
A snowy start to the season didn’t prevent 17-year-old jockey Debby Long from recording her first win on a recognized thoroughbred race track for trainer John Gray. Gray's Valley Girl paid $16.30, $6.70 and $3.40 across the board.
50 Years Ago - June 3, 1967
The perennial feature race of opening day, the Inaugural Handicap, was taken by JY Farm's Mays Relic. The George Howell trained entry had Dick Armstrong in the irons. Campaigned by track owner Jack Hardy, Mays Relic was always a popular, consistent campaigner in the early days of the Downs.
55 Years Ago – June 15, 1962
The start of the 1962 season saw the Downs say goodbye to the old chain link winner's enclosure and unveil its new, more stylish bricked-wall winner's circle. The first four-furlong race ever run at the Downs went as the third and was won by Jim Benjamin of Miles City, Montana with Our Way. Thus a brand new track record of :52 1/5 was set on a very sloppy racing strip.
Before I close out my first blog post about the the Diamond Jubilee Season, let us pause for a moment and remember the late, great trainer Don Gray. Don passed on Christmas Day 1993. It's hard to believe he's been gone that long.
The first race of every meet is named in his honour, and this year is the 24th running of the Don Gray Memorial.
Winnipeg Free Press horse racing columnist George Williams, who started out at the track as a groom for Don Gray in 1977, will take great pride in presenting the trophy to the winners of this year's Don Gray Memorial, 40 years later.
And that's a wrap, a little opening day history and the tale of our dark, mysterious stranger as we start Season 60. Wouldn't it be something if our crow's lineage could be traced back to the Whittier Park "Clocker." Now there's one for Ancestry.ca!
See you on Mother's Day Sunday! Parade to Post 1:15.