The 43rd running of the $50,000 J. W. Sifton Memorial for Manitoba-bred 3-year-old colts and geldings takes place this Friday at Assiniboia Downs. The race is named in honour of a very special "Manitoba" horseman who died much to young.
John W. Sifton may have been born in Ontario, but he was always proud to call Winnipeg, Manitoba home. The reserved master of Stoneacres Farm in Oakbank, Manitoba was also fiercely devoted to western Canada.
A newspaperman and a sportsman, John had a special love for horses. Not only did he own horses, he was widely regarded as an expert handler and breeder of race horses, hunters and jumpers.
John came by his love for the newspaper business and horses honestly. He was the son of Colonel Victor Sifton, a giant in Canadian journalism and the editor and publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press. Victor Sifton also rode, bred and showed horses. John was the grandson of Sir Clifford Sifton, a lawyer, publisher and statesman, and he shared the name of his uncle, Major John Wright Sifton, who was a Steward at old River Park.
Because he was a Sifton, John found himself entitled to many things, but that didn’t mean he didn’t work hard or that he wasn’t appreciative of what he had.
“I’m doing something I like, and not many people can make that statement,” he once said. And you could tell that he meant it.
John was president of Free Press Publications, general manager of the Winnipeg Free Press and a director of Sun Publishing Co. Ltd. and The Globe and Mail, as well as several other companies. He grew up with what would become his two loves -- the newspaper business and horses.
John made sure he learned every facet of the newspaper business and learned to do it very, very well. While he described himself as “no hell of a writer,” he penned many superb articles on horse racing and none better than the one he wrote about Robert James Speers, “The Father of Horseracing on the Canadian Prairies” following Speers’ death on July 19, 1955.
John knew everyone at the track, and was a past president of the Assiniboia Downs Turf Club, director of the Turf Club and the Canadian Horse Shows’ Association, and founder of the Winnipeg Benefit Horse Show. He was a member of the Manitoba Club, St. Charles Country Club and the Winnipeg Free Press Club.
John was a good friend of the late A. E. “Bert” Blake. The two joined forces around 1967 and unfortunately were only together for a couple of years before John’s untimely death in 1969. They did have time for a few good horses however, which included Clique, Pool to Market and Single Issue, the latter a son of the great Swaps. I for one would have liked to have seen this union carry on. Can you imagine what they might have accomplished? A horse in the Kentucky Derby? Why not? We can only dream of what might have been!
Sadly, we no longer see the Sifton’s racing colours. John and his wife June each had their own silks. John’s silks were brown with gold squares and June’s were the more familiar pink with green shamrocks.
John W. Sifton died of throat cancer 43 years ago in a Los Angeles hospital on June 10, 1969, but was brought home to Winnipeg and interred, most appropriately, across from the Downs at Chapel Lawn Memorial Gardens. Four days later, a race to honour his name and legacy was approved by the Manitoba Thoroughbred Breeder’s Association, with the inaugural running to take place during the Downs’ 1970 race calendar. The John W. Sifton Memorial Stakes was restricted to Manitoba-breds, and John wouldn’t have wanted it any other way!
The trophy awarded to the John W. Sifton Memorial winner every year bears the profile of its namesake cast in bronze, with a buffalo on each side and two thoroughbreds above the stone base. When you scan the list of previous winners of “John’s race” and look at the entrants in this Friday’s renewal of the Memorial, it makes you wonder whether there’s another Prince Robby, Northern Spike, Northern Diamond or Proven Reserve in their midst.
On hearing of John’s death, the comments from his closest associates said it all: “lost a good friend,” “a great tragedy,” “great loss,” “will never be replaced,” “one of God’s few noblemen.”
Prior to the computer age, reporters used to write -30- at the end of a story to signify they were finished. For John, “-30-” came much too soon.
He was 43.