For the Love of Racing, Those Were the Days…

On the tarmac at ASD after the races, in the "old" days.

On the tarmac at ASD after the races, in the "old" days.

by Bob

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."

Night falls on the paddock at ASD.

Night falls on the paddock at ASD.

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.

Under the moon.

Under the moon.

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!

4 Responses

  1. Debbie Benjamin Stevens

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and memories. I was born in 1958 so it is like The Downs and I grew up together. My Dad ( Jim Benjamin ) from Miles City, MT went to Winnipeg in 1959. With a few head of horses and my two older brothers ( Ben Benjamin ) and ( Arnie Benjamin ). From 1959 though the early 1990’s my family had a connection with the Downs.
    My Mother ( Ruth Benjamin ) and my brother ( Tom Benjamin ) which was a year older than I ( Debbie Benjamin ) we went to Winnipeg the fallowing race year. We grew up at the Downs with all of the same memories that you have and many more of our own. It was the best place in the whole world,we were never made to feel like it wasn’t our home too.
    Ben and Arnie both worked for The Downs.
    Ben worked The Gates and was The Outrider for many years. Ben and his wife Eileen in later years trained and ran their own horses for many years. They also raised their two boys at the Downs ( Strad Benjamin and Kent Benjamin ).
    Arnie was also The Outrider at The Downs, he went on to Outride at many racetracks in Canada and the US. He also Trained horses and raised his Kids ( Jody Benjamin and Chad Benjamin ) at the races. We lost Arnie in 2013 he has been greatly missed.
    My Brother Tom grew up at The Downs. He worked as a runner for the jocks room , also for Doc. Anderson as his Vet assistant, and many other Jobs. Tom and his Wife Sherry, trained and ran horses for many years in Canada and The US. They raised their Kids at the track ( Kelly Benjamin and Matt Benjamin ) Tom has been a Starter for many years, he has been the Starter at Prairie Meadows ( Des Moines, IA ) for over 20 years. He is still working, pushing the button.
    As for myself, ( Debbie Benjamin Stevens ) Growing up at The Downs and with my Family, I could not of ask for a better life. I worked doing different things, worked in the Office for Harry Jefferies. Worked in the Drug Store. Helped with Tattooing. Worked for different trainers as a groom, one being ( Ed Ragan ) so proud of that.
    My first Horse was Four Percent, he was an old class horse. One of my memories is that he ran on the day The Queen was at The Downs in 1970 for The Derby. He ran third with Larry Bird Riding. Yes I have many memories to many to write about.
    I have raised three Kids my oldest is the only one I had at the racetracks ( Sarah Kortum ) she was with me at the Downs in the early 1980’s . I left racing in 1983 and I miss it every day and all of our many friends.
    My daughter ( Jami Kortum Sisty ) is an RN and has given me, my first grandchild. The only word for that is Awesome.
    My son ( Cole Kortum ) is the owner of his own cleaning company.
    We lost my Dad in 1990, 25 years ago. He always loved Winnipeg.
    My Mom is 96 and is living in Miles City. We all owe her so much for taking care of us and letting us live our lives at the races.

    • Bob Gates

      Debbie, thank you for sharing information on your family, and it is very clear that you “get it.” Thanks for reading!

  2. Ron Phelps

    Nice season wrap up story Bob. Keep up the good work.

  3. Jean

    Oh I know those days very well or evenings with my parents it was fun. I had no idea you kept a blog like this as I just fell into it today. Good job Bob and yes me and my brothers and sisters all would love to go back in time and spend the day at the track with my parents. Good memories .

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