In the world of Norse mythology, Thor is recognized as the God of Thunder, but he is also closely associated with lightning and storms. On Sunday, June 6, 1976 Assiniboia Downs was the victim of his wrath!
The day started off like any other, with me and my buddy Al deciding to spend the day at the track. I remember it well, we took the old race track express bus (remember them?) to the Downs to enjoy the Sunday afternoon card, at least that was the plan.
But the fact of the matter was, it wasn't a great day, at least not for me. It was one of those days when I couldn't pick a winner to save my soul. Weird things happened. Horses didn't run to form and some races were just downright odd.
The first two races seemed to set the tone for what was to follow that afternoon. A $25 horse won the first race with a 17-1 shot running second. The second race had its upsets as well. A 35-1 shot ran second and a 10-1 horse was third. Horses were unpredictable and the day seemed all out of whack. It's was difficult to explain, but something was definitely wrong!
The final straw for me came in the sixth race. I liked Dr. Hark, a nice sprinter that was going to post at 5-1 in the six furlong contest. For my money, the only danger in the race was the Don Gray-trained Parry's Pride.
When they opened the gates it was 4:15 in the afternoon. Dr. Hark took off like a bolt of lightning, if you'll pardon the obvious reference. He ended up fading to fourth, which in itself wasn't the end of the world, but the time of the race was 1:13 and change. This was nothing short of stupid after covering the opening quarter in 22.2 and the half in 45.1. Dr. Hark almost never ran 6 furlongs slower than 1:12.
So that was it for me, I was done. I wasn't going to lose another cent. I told Al I was through for the day and that I would meet him on the bus when the races were over. Now, you have to understand that I had never in my life done this before. I never left before the card was done. But I made my way to the bus that was waiting by the entrance for anyone else who had decided to leave early.
By this time it was almost 4:30 and I really hadn't noticed, but the sky was getting ugly. Really ugly! I got about 20 to 30 yards from the old plywood admission booths when the winds started up, and from the west I could see it - a wall of rain coming across the field where the exhibition grounds are now.
An older woman was crouched over by a sapling tree which offered no protection. I approached her and emphatically encouraged her to join me in a run to the admissions booths.
You could tell that she was scared to death, but she only hesitated for a moment. By this time the winds were howling and the rain was pelting down so hard that it stung your skin. We huddled together beside one of the plywood booths while all hell broke loose around us, and in a matter of moments it was over!
It was later reported that the storm lasted only four minutes. But those few minutes seemed like an eternity!
I didn't know the woman, and for the life of me I can't even remember what she looked like, but she was grateful for the comfort we shared in the midst of the turmoil.
As we parted, she said something I will never forget, that she hoped that one day someone would do for me what I did for her. Thinking back, I really didn't do much, but we comforted each other, and felt safe together. I was just as frightened as she was.
Debris was everywhere. If it wasn't nailed down it was blown all over creation. The wooden benches in front of the grandstand were tossed around like they were toothpicks and ended up in a wind-swept pile along a fence.
The winds that hit the Downs that day were clocked at more than 100 kph. These same winds caused eight large plate glass windows in the southwest corner of the third floor grandstand to implode. Glass was everywhere. Six people were taken to hospital with minor cuts and abrasions and several others were treated at the Downs' infirmary.
When the storm struck, the horses were on the track parading for the seventh race, and an alert parade marshal, Ben Benjamin, saw to it that the horses were led off the track to Barn F for shelter. The final three races of the day were cancelled and the mop-up of the damage began. It marked the first time in Downs' history that a thoroughbred race program had been called off due to a storm.
Some said it was tornado, but weather officials denied it. Myself, I didn't see any funnel cloud, just wind and a lot of it, and a wall of rain like I had never seen before, or since.
It was a scary day, and I will go to my grave believing that the behavior and performance of several horses that afternoon foreshadowed Thor's four-minute rampage at Assiniboia Downs.
In the summer of '76.