by Bob Gates
Everyone's talking about the Kentucky Derby and Mothers' Day is just around the corner. You know what that means!
Live racing is set to return to Assiniboia Downs!
After a seven-month hiatus the Downs launches its 2018 season of thoroughbred horse racing this Mothers' Day, Sunday, May 13, and Darren Dunn and company are looking to build on the air of optimism that began in earnest a couple of years ago. The theme for the upcoming meet will focus on the 70th running of the $75,000 Manitoba Derby on August 6.
The backstretch has been buzzing with activity for a couple of months now as horsemen reclaim their barns, and something feels just right this year. It's an exciting time as friendships are renewed and new faces are welcomed to the Assiniboia Downs family.
The other day I spoke with a blast from the past, Karen Hendricks. Remember Karen? This is a lady who is as beautiful on the inside as she is on the outside. Karen trained for the "house" (and others) back when Michael Gobuty was the top man around the track. She helped to put the Downs large family in perspective.
Karen explained that she tried not to judge anybody, "…there are evil people in the world but most of them are just trying to get by. The track is a big family and I always feel honoured to have been a part of it. There are a lot of old friends out there that I wouldn’t trade having the privilege of knowing."
Nicely said Karen and we wish you were still here!
I spent a good part of last winter cleaning up the Downs memory vault and even after six years of writing this blog, there are still many stories to tell, so let's get started with a trip back in time to opening days from yesteryear:
10 Years Ago – May 3, 2008
Riding records are dominated by women. Twenty-five-year-old upstart Janine Stianson let it be known that she was going to be a force when she won the first four races on the card -- an opening day record. The record for most wins on an opening day card? That belongs to Vicki Lynn Warhol who scored a five-bagger in 1984.
20 Years Ago – May 11, 1998
Newcomer to the Downs, trainer Greg Tracy saddled four winners to start off the season in style, this en route to 51 wins and the 1998 leading trainer title.
35 Years Ago – May 2, 1983
Young Phil Hayek scored his first ever win as a trainer. He had the pleasure of conditioning a horse he knew and loved, Northern Spike. Spike was a track record breaking competitor in the spring. "I wish the whole year was made up of spring," said Phil.
40 Years Ago – April 29, 1978
The track lighting was replaced that spring. However, few knew that the last few bulbs of the new equipment were installed only two hours prior to the horses going to post for the first race of the year.
45 Years Ago – May 14, 1973
A season opener of "firsts." A Mothers' Day crowd of 4,845 set the record for the largest opening day handle ($206,026) since the Downs opened in 1958. It was also the first time that the racing season in Winnipeg began on a Sunday. And the one-time popular Inaugural Handicap (remember it?) had to be run in two divisions with each race boasting of a field of nine!
60 Years Ago - June 10, 1958
The Downs opened its doors for the first time. By now, most know that 18-year-old apprentice, Dick Armstrong, rode Gold Ern to victory in the first race ever run at Jack Hardy's Downs. But did you know that we located the framed horse shoes belonging to Gold Ern? You can see them in the track's Racing Through Time historical display in the main lobby, across from Guest Services. Be sure to check them out. Race patrons leaving the track on June 10, 1958 were given the informational booklet "Racing is Fun". Please check out the photo.
How about those memories?
As we await the start of the season this Sunday (Parade to Post is 1:15 on Sunday) lets be sure to remember that the first race of the season is named in honour of the late Don Gray. This year marks the 25th running of the Don Gray Memorial Purse. It's hard to believe that he has been gone that long. The tradition started in 1994 when Chime Time won the inaugural running of the race that bears Don's name.
And if you will permit me a final thought, the Don Gray Memorial always gets me thinking of the many trainers that have been a part of the backstretch family, but who are no longer with us. There have been many, too many that we have had to say goodbye to, over the years.
So, this Sunday let us pause to remember Don, and I know he wouldn’t mind if we also gave thought to his colleagues who have passed, and their contributions to the sport we all love.
We miss you all!