Famed racing icon died three years before Assiniboia Downs was built but laid foundation for the future
It’s been 20 years now since the Manitoba Jockey Club (MJC) took over Assiniboia Downs, and we owe a great deal to them for their contributions to the Downs, as well as to previous owner Jim Wright and Downs’ founder, Jack Hardy, but were it not for Robert James Speers our beloved Downs may have never been built!
Speers put thoroughbred horse racing on the map in western Canada and dominated the Canadian racing scene for more than 50 years. He was also a leading breeder of thoroughbred horses and was known as the “Father of Thoroughbred Horse Racing” on the Canadian prairies.
Speers was born on September 3, 1882 in Elmbank, Ontario to a blacksmith, Robert James Speers and his wife, Frances. His love for horses was seen early on as he owned his first horse at the age of nine. At the turn of the century, young Speers made his way west to make his fortune. With little money or connections, relying solely on a brief apprenticeship in his father’s blacksmith shop, he first called Winnipeg home.
In 1922 Speers, with partners Thomas Sumner and William Halpenny, took over a 3-year lease at River Park in Winnipeg. His entry into the sport of horse racing was to be the beginning of great things for the industry. Speers knew that long range plans were required and that River Park needed to be replaced.
The first race meet at River Park was held on June 17, 1922 under the supervision of the Winnipeg Driving Club. With the success of that first meet under his belt, Speers was confident that there was a future for thoroughbred racing in Winnipeg. He brought a respectability that had been sorely missing in horse racing. The end of the WWI coupled with this new found integrity laid a firm foundation for horse racing in Winnipeg that would carry forward for years to come.
In 1923 Speers worked on plans for the expansion of horse racing in Winnipeg. In early 1924 the construction of Whittier Park began on the banks of the Red River in St. Boniface. Whittier Park held its inaugural race meet under the direction of the Manitoba Jockey Club on June 24, 1924.
In 1925 Speers, together with the Winnipeg Jockey Club, built Polo Park racetrack. Polo Park’s first day of racing took place on June 12, 1925. All three tracks, River Park, Whittier Park and Polo Park were used in 1925. The facilities at Whittier Park and Polo Park were far superior to those at River Park however, and June 10, 1925 marked the last time that thoroughbred horse racing was held at River Park.
Speers’ prairie racing empire not only included River Park, Whittier Park and Polo Park, he was also the proprietor of Chinook Park outside of Calgary, which opened in 1925. Additionally, he operated annual one-week race meets for civic exhibitions associations in Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatoon and Regina.
Speers even took his racing empire to Butte, Montana in 1929, but the American experiment failed miserably. Still, these were bold initiatives, not only in magnitude but also in the timing, because this was at the onset of the Great Depression. In the end, Speers not only survived, but thrived.
He knew that as Winnipeg grew the Polo Park site would become far too valuable to be used only for summer race meets. In the early 1950s Speers took out an option on 200 acres in the then Municipality of Assiniboia. His plan was to build an even bigger and better track. At the same time, he sold an option on the property at Polo Park to a group of investors who planned to build what would become Polo Park Shopping Centre.
As often happens, fate intervened. On July 19, 1955 racing icon Robert James Speers suffered a massive heart attack at his home at 137 Kingsway Avenue in Winnipeg and died at the age of 72. He never divulged his plans for the replacement of Polo Park.
However, he had indicated that he would have liked to have partnered his idea with someone younger and have them take centre stage in operating the new facility. One thing is certain, there was no doubt that Speers had plans and if necessary, rest assured, he would have gone it alone.
At the close of the 1956 season the business consortium exercised the option on the Polo Park property and horse racing in Winnipeg came to a screeching halt.
With Speers gone, the drive to get a new track off the ground stalled and his estate was unable to carry on with the business plan that would return horse racing to Winnipeg.
Speers was responsible for introducing many features to horse racing:
- Introduced pari-mutuel betting to Manitoba in 1922.
- Founded the Prairie Thoroughbred Breeder’s Association in 1925.
- Published the Red Book of Canadian racing, the first accurate and comprehensive record of horseracing in 1930. This continued until the Canadian Thoroughbred Breeder’s Association took over in 1950.
- Introduced the Daily Double and Quinella.
- Introduced the Mark Cowell automatic starting gate to North America in 1939.
- Founded many of western Canada’s stakes races, such as the Alberta Derby, the Manitoba Derby, the Canadian Derby and the Winnipeg Futurity.
- Used the public address system to call races.
- Introduced the “Eye in the Sky” camera patrol and saliva tests.
- The first Canadian Breeder to raise winners of more than $1,000,000 on North American tracks in 1945.
- Won the Canadian Derby four times and the Winnipeg Futurity six times.
- Won six consecutive (1946 to 1951) Canadian Breeder of the Year Awards.
- Inducted into the Canadian Agricultural Hall of Fame in 1961.
- Inducted into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame in 1966.
- Inducted into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame in 1976.
- Inducted into the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame in 1983.
The man Manitoba horse racing owes so much to passed away three years before Assiniboia Downs opened its doors on June 10, 1958. He left behind a sea of admirers.
He was the kind of man who made a lasting impression on people. He had a knack for winning their confidence. Yes, he was a capitalist, but he found that delicate balance that allowed him to make a profit and still be respected.
Thank you Mr. Speers!