by Bob Gates
Sunraysed, Taboga, Persian Memories, Victor's Pride, Merry's Jay, Federal Ruler, Icy Welcome and Island Fling. What links these former equine stars who called Assiniboia Downs home during the 1970s?
Well, this is one of the many "dream" fields that took to the track at the Downs many moons ago. Regular attendees of the races during the '70s, at least the ones with good memories, will tell you that this field was typical of the stakes and allowance races from that time period.
These races were so deep in talent that on any given day five or six of the horses in the field were capable of winning.
No horse could "mail-in" a winning performance. These fields were tough. The winner had to be at the top of his or her game, they had to fire and they had to receive a good tactical ride. Even the slightest miscalculation could result in a loss.
Our dream field of remembrance participated in the second division of the 1977 Polo Park Handicap. Of the "excellent eight," (Sunraysed, Taboga, Persian Memories, Victor's Pride, Merry's Jay, Federal Ruler, Icy Welcome and Island Fling) six were multiple stakes winners, with Sunraysed and Icy Welcome "only" achieving the rank of stake winner.
Seven of the eight had set and/or equaled a Downs' track record. Merry's Jay was the only horse who had failed to establish or equal a record, but he was also the only one from this group to win a Manitoba Derby.
How do you bet a race like this? Very carefully would be my suggestion. And a good case could be made for getting yourself a bag of popcorn and watching the race just for entertainment!
On this particular day, the favourite was Island Fling, who didn’t fire and ran last. The winner, Sunraysed was the longest shot on the board and paid $26.40, $10.50 and $5.30. Go figure?
So why revisit the Polo Park Handicap and not one of the many other stake races that were run in the 1970s? An easy question to answer...
July 4, 2016 marks the 60th anniversary of the closing of Polo Park racetrack, but this year that date isn't a race day this year. So the Downs is paying homage to the old marooned-roof track on Friday, July 1, Canada Day. There will be a race named in honour of Polo Park and a draw for a special collage of memories of the track that operated from June 12, 1925 to July 4, 1956. Please check your race day program for details.
In addition, I will be on hand in the Racing Through Time area with a special photo display dedicated to the history of Polo Park. Please drop by and check it out.
Polo Park Handicap Fast Facts:
- Model Oscar won the inaugural running and was the only mare to win the race.
- In 1977 there were so many entries the race had to be split into two divisions.
- In 1980 speedy Beau Blade's entry resulted in no other horses willing to run against him, so a substitute race had to be run.
- Criollazo (1976) and Intercontinent (1981) set track records winning the race and Beau Blade (1979) equaled the track record when he won.
- Intercontinent was the only double winner.
- Trainer Don Gray and jockey Ken Hendricks each won the race three times.
- Rockcliffe's 1984 win gave the late Don Gray his 500th career win at the Downs.
How do you pay respect to Polo Park without mentioning the restaurant that was a part of the old track's mystique?
In Polo Park’s final years of operation an iconic west-end eatery opened for business in May 1952. “The Paddock” was a specialty house owned by Parry Orestes (an owner of thoroughbreds himself) and his son, Melvin.
The restaurant quickly became a local landmark because of the buildings circular shape. The upstairs dining room was called the "Winner’s Circle." The ground floor coffee shop, shaped liked a horseshoe, was the "Horseshoe Coffee Bar." The main dining room was known as the "Turf Room" and the bar was the "Starting Gate Lounge."
The Paddock was famous for the racing memorabilia that adorned its walls. The building was topped with a silver horseshoe and riding crop and a tall spire with the name "Paddock" in bright neon lights.
In 1985 the west end of the city lost a friend and Winnipeg lost a one-time fine jewel of a restaurant. In 1988 the old building was torn down to make way for two new restaurants.
As we fondly recall the 60th anniversary of the closing of Polo Park racetrack, it's difficult to imagine a more fitting tribute than the "Field of Dreams" that took to the track for the second division of 1977 Polo Park Handicap. This octet of thoroughbreds embodied everything that is noble in a thoroughbred racehorse.
And they brought it all, 39 years ago…
On game day.