When it comes to Derby memories, it gets no better than Merry's Jay win on August 2, 1976. And it couldn't have happened to a nicer couple.
Hugh and Ruth Jackson were another one of those special husband/wife teams that called Assiniboia Downs home.
Our Manitoba Derby goes to post this Monday afternoon and what better way to kick-off our Festival of Racing weekend than to reminisce about home-bred Merry's Jay; his run for glory in 1976; and the good people who bred and owned him all his life. Not so coincidentally, the All Star Manitoba Derby Series collector card give-away on Derby Day is none other than Merry's Jay. But before we do a retro-look at Merry's Jay, let's talk about the Jacksons.
Hugh Gordon Jackson was born on a farm in the District of Alexander in rural Manitoba on July 2, 1902. Growing up, farming and agriculture was his life. His parents raised purebred Angus cattle, as well as Clydesdale horses. In 1937 Hugh moved to Souris where he established a livestock farm.
Ruth Joanne Yeamans was born in Agincourt, Ontario on June 12, 1914 on the family farm. In 1937 she met Hugh, who was attending the Royal Winter Fair in Toronto. The two married in 1940 and raised three children, Don, Doug and Lorraine. Late in the 1960s, Hugh and Ruth ventured into the world of breeding and racing of thoroughbreds.
Hugh, or "Hughey" as he was known to his friends with his trademark cowboy hat, was the driving force and the pulse that kept Avondale Farms going. He was a "hands-on" kind of guy with his wife Ruth at his side. Always! According to his good friend and veterinarian Dr. Ross McKague, Hugh wasn't lucky in his breeding, he worked at it. He lived for the joy of seeing one of his foals come of age and hit the winner's circle, regardless of whose colours the horse was carrying. It was a special joy that only a breeder can experience.
Hugh bred horses to race, not to sell. McKague explained that some people get into the game as a business venture, while others use it to fuel an ego, but Hugh did it for the love of the game and he did it well! As he aged, McKague said that Hugh's love for racing kept him going when others might have been discouraged. Hugh was a class act and breeding genius who worked from bloodlines that don't exist any longer.
From Jackson's first mare, Merry Glance, came Merry's Hi Note. Merry's Hi Note in turn gave Jackson stakes winners Merry's Jay and Picatune. Among Picatune's foals were stakes winners Major Pick, Picabit and Pick Sure. There were others to be sure, but these names give you a glimpse into the quality of some of his charges.
The resulting stake wins from this group, in no particular order, included two wins in each of: the Buffalo Stakes, Sifton, Winnipeg Futurity, Harry Jeffrey and the Manitoba Stakes, as well as victories in the Distaff, Matchmaker, Golden Boy, Anniversary Stakes, Manitoba Sale Stake, Osiris Plate, Gold Cup, Canada Day Stakes, Fleur de Lis and of course, the Manitoba Derby.
The Manitoba Derby was run from 1930 to 1940 before it was discontinued by James Speers in favour of the Canadian Derby. In the initial 11-year period, a filly bred by Speers named Gowerlace became the first Manitoba-bred to win what we have come to know now as the Manitoba Derby in 1938. But Merry's Jay was the first homebred in "modern times" to win Manitoba's most prestigious race in 1976, almost 40 years after Gowerlace's victory! Bert Blake's Royal Frolic became the next and last Manitoba-bed to win the Manitoba Derby 17 years later in 1993.
By all accounts, Merry's Jay was a nice horse, stout but nothing flashy. Some said that he looked more like a stock horse than a champion thoroughbred. For an unremarkable looking horse plagued by injuries, he compiled some great stats. He finished in the money 36 times (10 wins, 19 seconds and 7 thirds) from 49 starts and in an injury-shortened career amassed earnings just shy of the then-illusive $100,000 mark.
The 1976 Derby winner lived all but a small portion of his life on the Jackson farm. Sometime after Hugh's death, the farm was sold, but provisions were made for Merry's Jay to go to another local area farm to live out the remainder of his life. Merry's Jay was in his 20s when he passed away in the mid '90s.
If any one person deserves credit for Merry's Jay win in the Derby, it was his trainer, Clayton Gray. Were it not for Clayton's expertise and hard work, Merry's Jay would have been a Derby Day scratch for sure!
In his race previous to the Derby, the bay injured his right front hoof, so in the week leading up to the Derby, Gray worked night and day to ready Merry's Jay for his historic run. Gray toiled like a man possessed to treat the hoof so the horse would be sound enough for the Derby. His win in the Derby is proof of Clayton's talents. He was a true master!
Merry's Jay was retired in 1982 to the Jacksons' Avondale Farm. On Derby Day in 1986 Hugh Jackson's 13-year-old pride and joy was paraded in front of the grandstand to mark the 10th anniversary of his Derby win.
In 1984 Jackson was honoured with a special award for his contributions to the thoroughbred breeding industry at the first joint awards banquet and dance held by the HBPA and the CTHS. Hugh and Ruth Jackson were honoured in 1990 by the Manitoba Horse Racing Commission for their contributions to the racing industry in Manitoba.
Following his death in 1987. the Downs ran the Hugh Jackson Memorial from 1987 to 1995. The winner of the inaugural running of the race, fittingly, was Jackson's own Touchy Treasure.
Ruth, her daughter Lorraine McGill, and grandson Jay Jackson, kept the home fires burning for many years following Hugh's death. This past May, Ruth Joanne Jackson passed peacefully in Souris, where she spent most of her life. She was just three weeks shy of her 101st birthday!
Hugh and Ruth are now at peace, Avondale Farm and Merry's Jay are gone, and we miss them. So as we head into our Festival of Racing weekend, we remember what they meant to racing, their love of the game, and the beautiful music they made together…
On Derby Day in 1976.