Gary Danelson, son of Henry and Hazel, and a native of Scobey Montana, is the all-time leading trainer at Assiniboia Downs. He entered the 2012 season with 1,115 wins and has now added 12 more to sit atop the all-time leader board at the Downs with 1,127 wins.
Ardell Sayler is in second place with 982 wins. The late Don Gray occupies third place with 879 wins, which is quite remarkable considering that he passed almost 10 years ago. Danelson, always humble in acknowledging his accomplishments, has said that if Don Gray had not passed away, nobody would have ever caught him.
Danelson got his start with horses at the age of 14, riding thoroughbreds in the “bushes” for his father, Henry. Yes, he started off in the business as a not-too-short jockey weighing in at 130 lbs. In 1956 he bought his first horse, Coherence, for $400, and won his first race at the Downs with that horse on August 29, 1959. Coherence went on to win 24 races over the course of his racing career and is a horse that Danelson always speaks fondly of.
The elder statesman among trainers at the Downs, Danelson is a sharp horseman and seasoned veteran who has raced here for seven decades. He is also a licensed owner/trainer in 19 states and 4 provinces. He generally brings a modest-sized stable to the Downs, and has shown a knack for picking up bargain-priced, broke down horses, nursing them back to health and turning them back into winners.
One of his better horses was Cosmic Tip, who raced in the ‘60s here. Purchased for $4,200, Cosmic Tip won the 1966 R. J. Speers Memorial Handicap, one of many victories that caused the late John Sifton, horseman extraordinaire and master of Stoneacres Farm, to comment that Cosmic Tip was the best thoroughbred that ever raced at the Downs.
When pushed to name jockeys that have impressed him over the years -- and believe me it took some urging – Danelson didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. In the end however, he admitted to liking Frank Barroby and Irwin Driedger. Danelson also explained that he had a very special place in his heart for Tim “The Worm” Gardiner, who rode first call for him for a number of years.
It was Danelson who gave Gardiner the nickname “The Worm,” as a result of some good-natured banter during a game of racetrack rummy, when Gary “The Canary” was the early bird and got “The Worm.” It’s odd how nicknames work. Tim’s nickname stuck with him like glue and followed him everywhere he went. Danelson’s not so much. He’s still “Gary.”
I approached Gardiner for a Gary Danelson story and he was quick to ask how many I wanted. The first one that came to mind for him was about Danelson’s horse Smart Figure.
After a rather lackluster stakes career, the 5-year-old gelding found himself in $5,000 claiming race in May 1998, which he won. Danelson liked what he saw that day and told Tim that the horse would win the Agassiz Stakes in August. And that’s exactly what Smart Figure did. He also went on to win his next two starts, the R. J. Speers and the Gold Cup. In the latter race he defeated Ed Pawluk’s star runner Smoky Cinder by a nose! Tim said from then on he never discounted anything that Gary ever said!
Gary Danelson Career Highlights:
- Became the Downs all-time leading trainer on May 26, 2001 with 880 trips to the Winners’ Circle, when Criso Como won the sixth race with Tim Gardiner up.
- Recorded his 1000th win in August 2004 with Brass Ruler.
- Won three leading trainer titles. In 1969 he tied with Bob Watt, in 1970 he tied with Clayton Gray and in 2003 he won the title outright.
- Won the Gold Cup twice with Baladi and Smart Figure.
- Won the R. J. Speers five times with Cosmic Tip, Smart Figure, Car Keys and Smoky Cinder (twice).
In addition to the above named horses, Danelson trained stakes winners Electric Fever, Hi Lord, Slew Kandu, River Lord, Lee Ann Chin, Fancy Bru, Marketable and Mr. Nitro, among others. He has also excelled with repeat winners over the years, including Sal’s Imp, who 7 of 10 races in 1964 (five of them at the Downs), and Pen Pal, a well-bred gray mare that was special to him.
Danelson suffered one of, if not the most tragic losses a man can experience, on May 10, 1976, when his only child, David James Danelson, died in a motor vehicle accident just a couple weeks short of his 19th birthday on June 5. Do you ever get over a loss like that? According to Danelson, you just learn to live with it. When I spoke with him about his son, he was very philosophical.
“It’s a part of life,” he said.
True enough, but you have to admire his strength and fortitude, his ability to carry on for all these years. You just have to believe that David would be very proud of his father!
In researching this tribute to our elder statesman, there has always been talk about his “pending” retirement. I first read about it more than 20 years ago! Yet he carries on. Retirement?
As long as he is able, our friend from Montana will continue to make the trip to Winnipeg, a place he considers his second home. An only child, he has no family left, with the exception of his partner, an exceptionally classy lady name Bonnie McCrory, who has been by his side since 1999. She’ll be with him. So let’s enjoy his magic with horses, and his friendship. We’ll see you again next year Gary!
By the way, our elder statesman turned 75 on August 28.
Happy Birthday my friend.