Anyone who has been around the Downs for a while has likely heard of Cecil Filby, and as our Manitoba Derby fast approaches some may wonder why I selected him for this week’s remembrance.
Was it for his accomplishments in our prestigious Derby? Was it for his life-long achievements at the Downs? No.
The “jewel” in Cece’s story is how his career was more typical of the average horseman back in the day than most of us will ever know or appreciate. Horse racing was his life, it was what he did!
The son of Julia and Robert Filby was born in Ochre River on September 11, 1911. Cecil and his wife Anne raised two sons, Raymond and Roy and that’s about all I can tell you about his family.
Filby started racing horses at old Polo Park around 1945 and made the transition to the Downs. Charges under his care at Polo were: Hire Fly, Memphis Lad, Fair Prep and Man O’ Speed to name but a few.
Make no mistake about it, his was a small stable, mostly local-breds and wins were few and far between for this man of limited means. Most years he was lucky to win one race. He supplemented his meager income by selling his services as the backstretch blacksmith. Needless to say, he endured some pretty lean years.
In June 1963, his horse, Gay Scamp, scored an upset win in the 8th race Quinella. Remember when the only Quinella on the card was in the 8th and final race and the pool would often exceed $30,000 – those were the days! Gay Scamp paid $61.70 to win and the “Q” paid $110.30! This win was his first in more than three years, but that’s how things went for Filby. One or two wins, usually around the end of the meet, with the horse paying off at huge odds!
In 1967 Cece's Scotty K (named after Downs’ GM Scotty Kennedy) combined with Wendell Mustard’s Golden Stream for a record shattering $2,347.90 Daily Double. Cece's 1967 season was his best ever at our west-end oval. He hit the winner’s circle six times, a true oddity for a man who could go two or three years without a payday.
At least two jockeys owe their start in the business to Cecil Filby. In 1962 he had Tak Inouye under contract and in 1972 he had Bonnie Csuzdi (Eshelman) signed to ride for him. Inouye would go on to ride Whistling Sea to victory in 1965 Queen’s Plate and become the first western bred horse to win the classic.
But Derby Day is just around the corner, so what about his Derby efforts?
In 1968 his Derby hope was Snow Ball King and on Derby Day track was rated as heavy. I was present and remember this race. Snow Ball King took off from the starting gate like the proverbial “bat out of hell” and opened a four-length lead at the quarter pole. He held the lead for about six furlongs. I recall thinking early on in the race that Snow Ball King looked good, so good that maybe, just maybe, he was going to steal the race. Then reality set in. He finished sixth of seven.
But Filby wasn’t done yet, he had another opportunity in the Manitoba Centennial Derby in 1970.
The stage was set for the July 15 contest. Her Majesty the Queen was in attendance and Cece's horse Parade Square was ready for his date with destiny. Or was he?
There was one small problem. Parade Square had never won a race, and to make matters worse, if that’s possible, he had only beaten one horse in his entire racing career. Filby was undeterred and explained to all that he might not ever get a chance to enter another horse, so he wasn’t about to pass on what might be his final Derby. But again, there was no fairytale ending. Parade Square was grossly overmatched and was pulled up before he had run a half mile. I can only imagine the hardship that the $500 entry fee caused to Filby’s limited budget. Parade Square was his last Derby horse.
Filby’s luck never changed. In April 1975 his barn in Stony Mountain was destroyed by fire. While there was no loss of life, he lost his sleeping quarters, all personal belongings, 2000 bales of straw, 350 bales of hay and all his tack. He had no insurance on the property.
In May of that year a fundraising draw for a buckskin pony was held at the Downs with the money going to Filby. Dr. Norm Elder won. He then auctioned the pony off and generously contributed this amount to the proceeds.
I could find no further records for Filby at the Downs after 1975. He died on October 9, 1981 at the age of 70. There were many people who were more famous and successful than Cecil James Filby. We could have remembered them on this Derby Day. But sometimes...
Telling the story of an ordinary man just seems like the right thing to do.
A year ago I told you about Fire N’ Desire’s win in the Manitoba Derby in 1969. I also explained that this was a day that my Dad and I shared a father and son day at the races. When the article was posted I called Dad and read it to him. Dad was blind, and I was overcome with emotion as I told him how much that day meant to me. This Monday’s Manitoba Derby will be a bitter-sweet one for me. Dad passed away this past March. I miss him, but take comfort in the father-son day we shared more than 40 years ago on Derby Day 1969. Thank you Assiniboia Downs, for this fond memory.
I will cherish it forever.