Who knew? The Downs has honoured the City of Brandon with a race carrying the name “Wheat City” since it first opened in 1958.
According to old media guides and newspaper accounts this year’s Wheat City Stakes should be the 42nd running, but it’s actually the 53rd edition of the classic. The race has been run annually since 1958 with the exception of 1970 and 1982, when it didn’t fill.
The inaugural running of the Wheat City in 1958 was won by Space Rocket and was the Downs’ salute to the City of Brandon. Back in the day, the Mayor of Brandon led a large contingent from the “Wheat City” to make the presentation to the winning horse and connections.
This year’s $30,000 Wheat City for 3-year-olds and up is the first major stakes for the male handicap set around two turns. Females can enter the race but they normally don’t. It’s just too tough. Furthermore, the Wheat City it forms a part of what I like to consider our own “Triple Crown” – with the Speers (1 1/16-miles) and the Gold Cup (1 1/8-miles) making up the final two legs.
There have been multiple back-to-back winners of the Wheat City including Go Fly (1961-62), Bring Us Luck (1971-72), Smoky Cinder (1998-99), Kalfaari (2001-02) and most recently Monsoon Rain (2008-09).
This week we remember the late Bill Mitchell’s Nifty, who won the race in 1986, 1987 and 1989. And in the year that he lost (1988) he was bested buy non-other than Nephrite, the track-record holder for 6 furlongs. On the day he defeated Nifty, Nephrite had to tie the track record for 1 1/16-miles to get the job done as Nifty ran second. Now that’s quite a record!
Nifty was a French-bred gelding and a true champion who raced his entire career for Saskatchewan’s Bill Mitchell. He was trained by Brandon’s favourite son, our own Albert Edward Blake. Purchased in Kentucky for $20,000, Nifty was unraced as a 2-year-old but then went on to win 12 of his first 24 starts from 1985 to 1987.
While he never said it, I’m certain that the late Mr. Blake took great pride in winning the Wheat City three times with Nifty; after all, it was a race that honoured his old home town.
Blake often spoke highly of Nifty. He called him the “French” horse, and he was always quick to point out that he set a track record in 1986 for 1 1/4-miles, bettering Langcrest’s 22-year-old track record by 2/5 of a second. Blake was never one to gush over any horse, but you could tell he liked Nifty – “nice horse” said it all.
Nifty’s regular rider was Larry Bird, who had his own kinship with the horse. His 1987 win in the Wheat City aboard Nifty was quite a tale. Bird left his daughter’s wedding reception after the usual toasts, whipped out to the track, won the race, and tore back to the reception just in time for the first dance, without missing a beat!
Both Bird and Nifty had a lot of hustle.