From World War ll Concentration Camp to 1958 Leading Jockey Title at the Downs
by Bob Gates
As a young boy Hugo Dittfach spent three years in a Russian prison camp. His journey through life would see him find his way to Calgary, Alberta where he would find work at a bus terminal lunch counter in 1955. In Calgary he was "discovered" and introduced to the Sport of Kings. Three short years later he topped the 1958 jockey leader board at Jack Hardy's new Assiniboia Downs. Now that's a trip!
Young Hugo spent his early years surviving the rigors of a tough life, but once he found horse racing he knew he was "home." He would go on to fame and glory as a rider of thoroughbreds for more than 30 years and ride 4,000 winners before hanging up his tack.
What a whirlwind trip it was for the young man who was born in Leer, Ostfriesland, Germany. To say that Hugo had a tough start to life would be the understatement of all understatements. He and his family were imprisoned in a Russian concentration camp in World War ll and in the span of a three-year internment he went from 115 pounds to a mere 48 pounds.
Dittfach immigrated to Canada where he settled in Calgary in September 1953. It was a less than idyllic start in his new country. He had no skills, didn't speak the language and ended up working at the lunch counter in the Greyhound Bus terminal where he cleared tables, washed dishes and did whatever else he was told to do.
Calgary, however, carried with it the promise of a future. Here he was introduced to popular local horseman Tommy Morrison and embarked on a career as a jockey. Lord knows Dittfach was built for it. He fit in well with the brethren of under-nourished and vertically-challenged men of the room. He had strong, tough hands that would hold him in good stead with any wild, overbearing four-legged monster. It was a perfect situation save for one little detail, he knew nothing about riding or racing so if he was going to make a go of this, it was going to take work, hard work - something Dittfach was all too familiar with.
As it turned out, Dittfach wasn't a natural in the saddle, but his work ethic more than made up for his lack of talent. He was a tough, old school kind of guy who worked like a man possessed at his chosen profession. On a typical eight-race card, he was only happy if he had a mount in all of them. A typical day would see him getting on at least six or seven runners.
Dittfach broke his maiden in Calgary on a horse called Flying Ade on May 26, 1956 and got his first win locally at old Polo Park race track on June 4, 1956. His winning horse that day, Bar Hobby, paid a whopping $57.80, $23.50 and $10.80 across the board. Dittfach won 91 of his 563 starts in 1956.
Racing in Winnipeg was in a state of flux in 1957 with the closure of Polo Park in July 1956, so Winnipeg didn’t see Dittfach again until 1958 when Jack Hardy opened Assiniboia Downs. In 1957 he still won 136 of his 853 starts, including six winners on an eight-race card at Calgary's old Victoria Park.
During the Downs first year of operation in 1958, the 19-year-old, 100 pound, 5' 2" Dittfach captured the first leading rider title at "Western Canada's Finest Race Track" Assiniboia Downs. His first win at the Downs came on opening day in race six on Tinda Moon. Dittfach accumulated 55 wins during the Downs inaugural 42-day season and his overall totals for 1958 included 208 wins from 1,318 mounts.
After winning the Downs jockey title in 1958, Dittfach wanted more and decided to give the larger tracks in the east a try. In the years that followed he honed his craft and found success riding in the east and at tracks south of the border. "Hustlin" Hugo's was always trying to prove himself and he did that the only way he knew how. He won races and he won them in bunches. He rode for 33 years and amassed exactly 4,000 victories.
Winnipeg race goers had a love/hate relationship with the feisty little man who did most of his riding at Woodbine, Fort Erie and Greenwood. Not all fans in the Peg took kindly to his move to the eastern tracks and some just outright resented it. They felt betrayed. "What, we weren't good enough for him," seemed to be the feeling. In the years to come Dittfach rode the odd stakes race at the Downs and some locals took great glee when the "hot shot" rider from the east finished up-the-track.
But you don't ride 4,000 winners by accident. Dittfach was one of the most fearless, determined, hard-working jocks to ever get on a horse. There are few absolutes in this world, but you'd have to look far and wide to find another rider who worked harder than Hugo Dittfach!
He was well known for his "vigorous" rides and none more so than in the 1961 Queen's Plate when he rode longshot Blue Light to the smallest of nose victories over heavy favourite Just Don't Shove. On that day Hugo outhustled the world's winningest jockey, Johnny Longden, who just couldn't hold off Blue Light's late charge.
Riding in the 1960s was a different time. Queen's Plate film footage established that Dittfach whipped his mount 47 times from the top of the stretch to the finish line to steal the race from Longden, something you definitely wouldn’t see today.
Dittfach chose to end his career on a cold, dark, dreary night in November 1989 at Greenwood race track, when he scored his 4,000th career win. He then moved on to training until he retired in 2011.
- Won the first Sovereign Award as Canada's outstanding jockey in 1975.
- Inducted into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame in 1983.
- Received the Avelino Gomez Memorial Award in 1991 in recognition of his contributions to the sport.
The Queen's Plate winning jockey's 4,000 wins are good enough to put him in 72nd place on the All-Time Thoroughbred Jockeys (by wins) listing. His 12% win percentage is the lowest of the top 100 jocks. This speaks to the fact that Hugo wanted to race and race often.
He took mounts that others wouldn’t, and he rode on bad weather days when others would take a pass. In short, nothing would keep him out of the saddle.
Now 81, Hugo is out of the horse racing business, but I'm told he still has horses in his blood and will until his number is called. These days Fenelon Falls, Ontario is home.
Hugo Dittfach only rode here for one season, but it was the first year in what has become a long and storied past for Assiniboia Downs.
That makes it special.