Polo Park, the “father” in our family tree analogy, was a 6 furlong oval that opened on June 12, 1925. R. James Speers was given credit for building Polo Park, but he was not the driving force behind the idea to build the west-end track. Rather, he came to rescue the group that had planned it.
Polo Park was located in the area now occupied by Polo Park Shopping Centre. It was noted for its gleaming white buildings roofed in maroon, and its name, which was painted in huge white letters on the grandstand roof.
Advertised as “America’s finest racing plant” Polo Park was opened under the auspices of the Winnipeg Jockey Club and the St. Vital Agricultural Society. It prided itself as being the home of the Canadian Derby, yet it was no stranger to tragedy.
In the 31-year history of Polo Park, two jockeys lost their lives as a result of accidents. Jockeys Earl “Sandy” Graham and Rex Young both succumbed to injuries they sustained in “on track” accidents, Graham on September 10, 1927 and Young on June 27, 1941.
Polo Park was also the victim of two major fires, the first occurring in November 1934, when the grandstand was destroyed, and the next in August 1946, which leveled “B” barn. The 1934 fire was a costly one, but there was no loss of life, humans or horses. The fire in 1946 saw two racehorses perish.
Who can remember the majestic swans that graced the lake in the Polo Park infield? The swans made their first appearance at Polo Park in the summer of 1950 when they were brought in, on loan, from a Portage La Prairie park. Shortly thereafter, James Speers obtained four swans for the track. While I’m sure that all of the swans had names, only two of the birds were mentioned by name in the local press. So we pay tribute here to “Effie” and “Cyril” of the long forgotten Polo Park swans.
The future of racing in Winnipeg was dealt a severe blow with the death of R. James Speers in 1955, and a year later Polo Park’s solo effort would come to an end. The value of the property the track was located on had skyrocketed and it was no longer practical to only use it for summer horse racing. The end was inevitable.
Also lost was Winnipeg’s claim to fame as being the host of the Canadian Derby. With Polo Park’s closure in 1956, the Canadian Derby was moved to Edmonton in 1957. All efforts to get it back failed.
When Polo Park closed its doors on July 4, 1956 it was a foregone conclusion that there would be no racing in Winnipeg in 1957. The death of R. James Speers had left a cloud of uncertainty as to when, or if, horse racing would return to Winnipeg. The demolition of Polo Park was effectively done when the signature white gates came down in 1957.
There were some very trying times in the months that followed the closure of Polo Park, but in 1957 businessman James Hardy took control of horse racing’s destiny in a manner that would have made Speers proud, and from the splinters of Polo Park, came the birth of Assiniboia Downs, on June 10, 1958.