With less than a handful of live racing dates left, the end of the 2015 season at Assiniboia Downs is almost upon us. It has been a challenging year, like others recently, but that seems to be the norm these days.
And I have a confession!
I love this sport and I couldn't think of a better time to express my unabashed respect and adoration for racing at Assiniboia Downs, past and present.
I started coming to the Downs with my parents around 1960. In the '70s the main floor of the grandstand might as well have been my living room. My buddy "Big Al" and I were very loyal patrons!
The fact is, the Downs has been a huge part of my life, and from conversations I've had with other patrons and visitors to the track this year, the Downs has been an integral part of their lives too.
Is it perfect? Certainly not. But what is?
So today as I pen my last blog post of the season and bid you farewell until next spring, I reflect on pleasant, long ago memories of our west-end oval.
I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to speak with Michael Magee, noted horse racing analyst/commentator, just months before his death in 2011. We spoke for the better part of two hours and there was one thing he said that really hit home. I remember it well. He struggled at first to find the right words, so I knew something profound was coming.
"There's almost something sacred about horse racing."
I knew what he was getting at and he was right. If you don't understand what he meant, I'm not sure I can help you. It's not one particular thing, but rather a host of things that come together to form a unique and rare combination of feelings and experiences that can be very personal.
The best way to illustrate what I'm talking about is to provide you with a clay tablet of remembrances. Perhaps they will jog your memory, and oh how I miss the feelings that accompany these random thoughts of yesteryear:
- The posting of the Department of Agriculture photo finish print and wondering if I could "borrow" it at the end of the race day when no one was looking.
- Harold Loster's race results on CJOB after each and every race live from the Downs. A lot of people "played the races" from home every race night using the Graded Selections and advice from Loster in the Winnipeg Tribune and Elman Guttormson in the Winnipeg Free Press. You played for the fun of it and at day's end the balance in your bank account never changed.
- Jim Wright's $5 "Wagers for Charity".
- The simplicity of a typical race card back in the day when the Daily Double was on Races 1 and 2 and Race 4 was the Exacta (when it was first introduced it was called the One-Two). The feature race of the day was always Race 7 and of course there was the popular 8th race Quinella, where pools were almost always over $25,000 and at times reached $40,000 and $50,000.
- Seeing all of the different licence plates from our American friends in an overflowing parking lot. Some days you'd swear that there were as many U.S. visitors at the races as there were people from Manitoba.
- The playing of "Bridge on the River Kwai" over the loud-speakers, informing punters that the horses were nearing the starting gate and that there was only 2 1/2-minutes to post.
- You could rent binoculars for a $1.00 a day.
- Gentlemen entering the "Turf Club" (we now know it as the clubhouse) must wear a jacket.
- Visitors were asked to sign Guest Books located in the grandstand booths at the north end of the second floor Turf Club and south end of the third floor.
- Friday was Ladies Day. All ladies were admitted free!
- Films of each race were sent to the "old" press box (which until the 2004 fire was attached to the top of the grandstand) via a zip line rigging from the north and south towers.
- Popcorn always tasted better at the track, and it was better yet if it was someone else's.
- My Dad had a secret reserve in his wallet that Mom never knew about and the only time I ever saw him use that reserve was at the track!
By the way, kudos to the Downs for bringing back the seven furlong races. It gets no better than watching the start of a race up-close and personal. Great memories.
Okay, now it gets a little weird.
Most of all I remember and sadly miss the debris on the tarmac following a busy day at the races. It was a different time!
"Littering" wasn't evil or slovenly, it was a part of racing, a right of passage kind of thing. Multi-coloured pari-mutuel tickets, programs, Daily Racing Forms or "Digests" as they were known back then, popcorn boxes, and beer cups (lots of beer cups) blanketed the grounds like snow on a winter's morn. Looking back, it wasn't unsightly or hideous, it was all evidence of a "happening!"
You knew you loved racing when a the end of the day, after the crowds were gone, you could take a quiet walk in the solitude of the moonlit sky and bask in a sea of memories from days gone by. Try it sometime. For me the memories are personal reflections that in most cases I chose not to share with others. Why?
Because they might not understand.
I care deeply about racing and so should you. Maybe American Pharoah's Triple Crown win this year will be the catalyst for a "rebirth" of the sport. His recent defeat in the Travers doesn’t change a thing and don't let anybody tell you it does.
In the end it's up to each and every one of us to be proud of the sport in general, and of our little corner of the world here at Assiniboia Downs. Whether we know it or not, we have something extra-special here.
Let's embrace our history!
I'm convinced that deep down that the Downs is important to all of us and I believe we owe it to ourselves to rediscover the memories we've suppressed about the simple things that made racing in Winnipeg so special.
The challenges that face the sport are not restricted to the Downs. Tracks all over the continent have had to come to grips with similar obstacles. Racing may never be what it was, but it can still be the best it can be.
In the end, I guess I just long for the good old days.
You know, it's the kind of thing that people over a certain age miss about the past. It doesn't mean that the old days were better than today, perhaps just different, but we associate and glorify the old memories with other non-tangibles to form long-lasting feelings that are ours forever.
As '60s songstress Mary Hopkin would sing ♫♫♫
Those, were, the, days my friends, we thought they'd never end…
Postscript: I've enjoyed writing this blog for the past four years, but it wouldn't mean anything if you weren't there to read it.
Thank you! We'll see you next year!