by Bob Gates
The historic Manitoba Derby is a treasure-trove of milestones. The 2021 edition will be yet another in the storied legends that contribute to its mystique. This season's Derby will take place with a tarmac filled to capacity with anxious spectators after a one-year covid-induced "no fans in the stands" hiatus.
Let's begin by looking at the previous winners of the race according to chronological milestones. Derby trivia anyone?
Who won the inaugural Manitoba Derby? Jack Whittier in 1930.
Who won the 25th running? Zaca Spirit in 1973.
Who won the 50th Derby? Well, we're not giving it away that easy. Think about it for a bit and we'll come back for the reveal. In the meantime, how about some Manitoba Derby history?
The various milestone runnings can be confusing if you consider the first Manitoba Derby to be Jack Hardy's 1960 edition, which resurrected the race inaugurated by Robert James Speers in 1930.
Hardy's effort kicked-off the history of the race as it relates to Assiniboia Downs, but we would do the race a great injustice if we did not include the 11-year span from 1930 to 1940 that featured the "birth" of our Derby.
The Manitoba Derby's "death" in 1941 gave rise to the Canadian Derby which was run at Polo Park racetrack until its closure in 1956. The Canadian Derby was then moved to Edmonton where it has been run ever since.
In 1960 Jack Hardy renewed the Manitoba Derby, which saw Assiniboia Downs play host to the 12th running of the race, 19 years after the last run in 1940 at Polo Park. Sorry for the detailed digression, but it does help put the chronology of the Derbies that followed in perspective.
Well, you've had some time to think about it, so who won the 1998 Derby? If we were honest about it, very few would remember that 23 years ago our hallowed Derby classic was won by A Fleets Dancer.
If you consider the career earnings of the horses that won the Manitoba Derby over the past 25 years, you'd only find one millionaire in the group. Who? Why none other than A Fleets Dancer. If you go back to 1930 there's only one other Derby champion who reached millionaire status. Steady Power, the 1987 winner, had career earnings that bettered the Dancer's total by about $100,000.
In addition to the Manitoba Derby, the Dancer won the Canadian Derby in 1998. The chestnut stallion was also credited with winning the Alberta Derby that year, but only and after successfully challenging the Steward's decision " to disallow a claim of foul against the winner of the race, Vernon Invader" to an appeal tribunal. The Dancer owned a nice pedigree, having Mr. Prospector as his grandsire, with Vice Regent-Northern Dancer blood on his dam's side. In 2001 he also won a Sovereign Award as Champion Older Horse and was a Breeders’ Cup Classic participant.
Alberta's Dancer was owned by the Cam Allard family, trained by Rod Cone and ridden by Real Simard. I caught up with Real via social media, and he described the Kentucky-bred stallion as a mean and nasty, two-man horse in the barn, but easily the best horse he ever rode.
The keenest of race fans might remember Simard riding here in 1987, and he has fond memories of his time in Winnipeg. His primary recollection of the ‘98 Derby was how well all of the connections were treated by the Downs. "It was a first-class reception,” he said. “And I remember how impressed Mr. Allard was with the food and the general reception from Assiniboia Downs."
How about the Dancer's trainer, Rod Cone? Name sound familiar? Mr. Cone is the man who stepped up last year to assist our own Shelley Brown. Shelley, who was forced to remain in Winnipeg because of health issues, was unable to tend to her Canadian Derby starter Real Grace. So Rod took over for Shelley, the trainer of record, and got the job done when Real Grace got home as an upset winner in the prestigious race. On Rod Cone Shelley explained:
"I have known Rod for over 25 years and have even worked for him. He is such a genuine person and treats everyone with kindness and respect. Each time I travelled to Alberta to racehorses, he always opened his barn to me and had his staff help me out in any way I needed. He is just an outstanding human being, and I am proud to call him not only a colleague, but a friend! He is a great horseman. I never could have won the Canadian Derby without him and could not have chosen a better person to condition and care for my horse. There are not many people like him left in this world, he is one of a kind!"
The 50th running of any horse race is a milestone. A Fleets Dancer's win on August 3, 1998, was such an event. Monday August 2nd will be the 73rd running of the Manitoba Derby and will take place in front of a "covid-capacity" crowd. Come 2023 the Downs will play host to yet another milestone Manitoba Derby, the historic 75th running of Manitoba’s most prestigious race.
And those memories just keep on coming!