by Bob Gates
This week's blog story is a departure from our usual tale of yesteryear. In the early 1970s Toronto sports columnist, Jim Coleman took on a task that few would dare try. In 1971 Coleman together with Canadian Publishers, McClelland and Stewart Limited unleashed a classic piece of writing called "A Hoofprint On My Heart."
The dust cover says it all: The author acknowledges freely that he has engaged in a lifelong love affair with the race track, but this isn't merely a book about racing. Jim Coleman has written the warmly nostalgic story of a little boy who "always wanted to own a race horse." The boy grew up to acquire a collection of remarkably individualistic friends, some of whom were "no better than God intended them to be." Jim Coleman writes of his off-beat playmates, equine and human, with lively affection.
It is bar none the best book you will ever read about the early days of racing in Canada, told in a way that only celebrated sports writer Coleman could accomplish. The book covers all manner of racing topics and provides a glimpse of the characters who called racing's backstretch home: Deacon Jack Allen, Chattahoochee Smith, Michigan Ike, Whittlin' Knifong, Whittier Park Slim, The Caviar Kid, High-Ball Kelly, Stuttering Charlie Smith, Kinky King, Old Doc Ronald and Spud Murphy.
Granted it isn't solely about our local racing scene, but if you have an interest in or a curiosity for racing in the 1920s to 1950s, do yourself a favour and seek out this out-of-print gem.
There wasn't a lot of talk about Coleman in our household. Dad was a true blue western and hated all who lived east of the Manitoba/Ontario border with a passion.
Especially the sports types who were always talking about the greatness of all sports teams in the east. For Dad's money this was the fault of the sports writers who only knew how to extol the virtues of teams from Toronto and Montreal. To him, they were all a bunch of eastern "arseholes" and this put the cigar chomping Jim Coleman at the top of father's "hit list."
Years would pass before I learned that Coleman was born in Winnipeg on October 30, 1911. As a youth he lived on Donald Street with his family before moving into the Canadian Pacific Railway's (CPR) Royal Alexandra Hotel from 1922 to 1930 after the death of his mother. At the time his father, D.C. Coleman was western Vice President of the CPR and well on his way to becoming President. Young Jim was accustomed to riding in his father's private railway car and living in posh CPR suites, but he was at home on racing's backstretch.
Coleman started work at the now defunct Winnipeg Tribune in 1931 and ended his career at the Vancouver Province. He worked until the end. His last column appeared in the Province the day he died.
An accomplished newspaper man who did some radio and television gigs, but at the end of the day Jim Coleman was a sports writer. Coleman was never a star competitor in any sports arena or stadium, yet he was one of Winnipeg's greatest contributions to the world of sports. He was as gifted at his chosen profession as Babe Ruth was to baseball and Wayne Gretzky was to hockey.
When his column was syndicated in 1950 he became the most widely read sports columnist in Canada. Jim Coleman had a way with the humorous and human side of sports and had no peers.
In addition to his legendary writing skills, Coleman was in his element as an after-dinner speaker or master of ceremonies. His friends knew him as "Sir James." Give him the microphone and before long Jim armed with his wit and memories would have his audience falling out of their chairs. He had a remarkable memory and simply loved to recall the "Good Old Days."
In June 1975 the Downs honoured seven men for their contributions to racing. The special Fathers' Day card was billed as the "official opening" for the Downs under the new management of Jim Wright. The honourees were four-time Downs leading rider and winner of the first race at the Downs on opening day June 10, 1958, Dick Armstrong, veteran owner Lee Williams, Free Press Sports Editor Maurice Smith, long time general manager of the old Prairie Racing Circuit Lou Davies, 86 year old veteran trainer Ed Ragen, Downs Steward and a man who was involved with horse racing going back to Whittier Park Tommy Sumner and syndicated sports writer and member of Ontario's Racing Commission Jim Coleman.
True confession time, years ago "Hoofprint" was given to me as a gift, but I'm not a much of a reader and sadly it sat for more time than I care to admit. My loss! Eventually, I picked it up and gave it a go. Was it enjoyable? Yes, and I enjoy it more each time I read it. And I do that often.
I had barely cracked the spine of Jim's book when I was entrapped by the romantic charm of his labour of love. Coleman paints a picture for his readers of lying in bed and reminiscing about his memories of racing. He refers to them as night-dreams. Here are a few examples in my amateur attempt to wet your appetite for his book.
I am an evil old man lying here, remembering. The fingers of the night breeze are twisting the curtains ends lazily and I am thinking: "They could bury me in the infield at Woodbine, close to the rail where I'd hear the thud of the hooves. They could scatter my ashes on the homestretch at Fort Erie. Better still, bury me somewhere on the backstretch, where I could hear the lies."
…As I lie here, now, I remember… I remember… I remember.
…It's going to take me a couple of hours of night-dreaming before I get around to the horse-racing portion of this deathbed confession.
…You question the accuracy of my memory? You quibble over the precise detail in which I describe long-ago incidents? For the purposes of this night-dream, I have been granted the gift of total recall. Consider the fact that I am lying here, remembering the enduring love affair of my life… Memory is the only true, faultless mirror.
…The bulky figure in the background, the man who was to play an important role in my destiny, a man who I was to revere until his dying day and beyond, was Robert James Speers.
…Within a year or two, R. James Speers moved his racing operations out of River Park and he built two new tracks, Whittier Park and Polo Park. In my childish perspective, they were magnificent; Whittier with its white buildings and cottage barns, roofed in green, and Polo Park with similar gleaming white buildings, roofed in maroon. It was on those two tracks that I learned about life and harmless larceny.
Coleman spent most of his life in Toronto, but was a westerner at heart, content to close out his career in Vancouver. He was injured in a fall in January 2001 and never recovered.
In Jim's weakened state there's good cause to believe that the long since departed shady characters of heaven's backside won out. Yes, the forces of the same rogues that were the subject of his writings over eight decades won life's tug-of-war with the senior statesman of sports writers. The real world had been home to Coleman for long enough. The backstretch of the great beyond wanted their dear friend back. It was time.
James Alexander Coleman died of heart failure January 14, 2001.
On his passing fellow Canadian sports writer Milt Dunnell, a friend of Jim's for more than 50 years described him as "One of the finest sports writers in North America." Milt's now gone as well, he passed in 2008 at the age of 102. Those sports guys came from healthy breeding stock!
Jim Coleman's death marked the end of an era. Few of his peers and none of the younger brethren of his vocation had the wealth of his personal experiences, nor did they have access to his library of friends and acquaintances.
- - Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame
- - Order of Canada
- - Canadian Sports and Newspaper Hall of Fames
- - Media Divisions of the Canadian Football League and National Hockey League Hockey Hall of Fames
- - Canadian News Hall of Fame
Jim's "Hoofprint" describes his lifelong love affair with the nostalgia related to horse racing and its many sordid characters. If the passages from his book speak to your love of racing, please seek out this treasure trove of memories.
I have been lying here all night, remembering - just the two of me.
There is a breeze blowing quite briskly; the bedroom curtains are billowing in the dawn light like mist drifting above the Woodbine shedrows in the hour before work begins. The old house is creaking in the morning breeze. Probably, the old house is creaking under the weight of the mortgage. That damn mortgage wraps itself around the old house's rickety chimney, clinging like an albatross.
I must write down my night-dream while it's fresh in my mind.
Winnipeg native, "Sir James" Coleman was the story teller of all story tellers. Old bookstores everywhere are calling. You'll be glad you did and please enjoy …
It will leave a "Hoofprint on your Heart."