by Bob Gates
Welcome to the second in our five-part series devoted to the 70th Running of the Manitoba Derby. Today we look at more than 40 years of Derby memories, starting with the most recent and working our way back through time.
August 6, 2012 - Winner: Balooga Bull
Not surprisingly, it was Balooga Bull himself that set up his win in the Manitoba Derby. The finicky eater and head-strong gelding had let it be known that he would do what he wanted, when he wanted to. Trainer Ardell Sayler and jockey Paul Nolan tried to get the Bull to run their race, but Bull would have no part it.
Going into the July 14, 2012 Derby prep, the Harry Jeffrey Stakes, the Bull was riding a six-race win streak, but he had yet to go two turns. The Harry Jeffrey would be his first attempt at anything over a route of ground.
Nolan and Sayler decided that the Bull should be rated as he stretched out for the first time, but the stubborn gelding had other plans. He fought Nolan for the entire trip. At times the veteran jockey was almost strangling the Bull to hold him back, trying to save something for the drive. Let's just say, that plan didn't work.
The Bull did not take to this treatment and pouted his way to the wire finishing a distant third. It was the first time he had finished behind another horse, never mind two of them. What a humbling defeat!
So instead of going to the Derby as the odds-on-favourite, as he was destined to be, Bull found himself as the betting public's second choice at 6 to1 and proceeded to show the crowd what a real speed horse looked like when he was allowed to do what “he” wanted to do. Bull went gate to wire, setting sizzling fractions of 22.2, 46.2, 1:11.6, 1:38.2 and coasting home to stop the timer in 1:51.8 for the 1 1/8-miles. His backers were well-rewarded with a handsome win payoff of $14.30.
Erase the Harry Jeffrey experience and the Bull would have gone postward as the even-money favourite. No one got close to the Bull that Derby Day. His margin of victory? Ten of the easiest lengths you're ever going to see.
August 1, 2005 - Winner: Prime Time T. V.
Derby champ Prime Time T. V.'s win echoed that of Balooga Bull's. Prime Time was destined to be the favourite in the 2005 Derby, but two off-beat performances prior to the Derby cast doubt on the ability of the well-bred son of Deputy Minister. Was he as good as his press clippings?
After two wins at the Downs early in his 3-year-old season, he ran fourth in the Alberta Derby and then got beat again in the Derby Trial. Undeterred, wily veteran trainer, Bert Blake set about to do what he did best -- get his horse ready for the Derby. Blake would later admit, that Prime Time had him puzzled. Was he doing too much? Was he doing enough? After all, you don’t train a horse for the race before the Derby. You train him for the Derby.
Come Derby Day, it was a mystery as to which Prime Time T.V. was going to show up. The world beater from earlier in the year or the difficult $750,000 yearling who just wouldn't or couldn't be rated.
There's no doubt Prime Time caused Blake a lot of headaches as he searched for a combination that would unlock the colt's potential. Not only was the result a Derby win, it was the best example of a last to first run as you're ever going to witness.
For the first part of the race Prime Time could see them all, spotting the leader 15 lengths. At the 3/4-mile marker he was second to last and still a good six lengths out of it. Going into the final turn, jockey Travis Hightower took Prime Time 8-wide and he blew by the field, drawing off to win by 11 lengths. It was one of the most spectacular and unexpected moves ever seen by a horse at Assiniboia Downs.
Like the Bull, erase his two off-races going into the Derby and Prime Time T.V. was an even money favourite to win. Instead his true-blue supporters cashed a sweet win ticket worth $8.10.
August 7, 1989 - Winner: Rough Catch
It had been 13 long years since a local horse had won the Manitoba Derby, but Rough Catch was giving off some real good vibes. He was going into the Derby with two nice wins under his belt, both by more than five lengths for owners Joyce Gray, Murray Bozniak and Harvey Warner. So where's the special memory?
Well, Rough Catch wasn't much of a looker. His demeanor off the track was more that of a "sad sack" pony than that of a talented thoroughbred. Thankfully he didn’t run his races in the paddock. When Rough Catch stepped on the racing surface, he transformed from a docile trail plodder to a fire-breathing beast who was all business, ready to run down all who dared challenged him.
His Derby Day run saw him wire his seven opponents, winning as he pleased. Trainer Shorty Gray said the Derby win was the "greatest thrill" of his life and jockey Todd Kabel shared those same sentiments. Not to mention, it was rookie race caller Darren Dunn's first Manitoba Derby.
All Derby winner's circles have a euphoric atmosphere, but this day it was unlike any other. Insanity reigned supreme. The 1989 Derby win photo has to be one of the finest examples of "a picture worth a thousand words" as you are ever going to see. Check out the win photo at the top of this post!
August 3, 1980 - Winner: Country Free
Country Free's reputation preceded his trip to Assiniboia Downs for the 1980 Manitoba Derby. He earned his morning-line favourite status on the strength of nine wins from eleven lifetime starts. The B.C. bred colt was the class of the race. Trouble seemed to follow him around however, and he survived four inquiries from his race wins. An omen perhaps?
Local hopefuls, Mr. Macho and Northern Spike, appeared to have legitimate shots in the Derby. Big Boy Stables' locally owned and raced Mr. Macho was the second choice and Oakbank’s Ivan Dowler and Sons Manitoba-bred and owned Northern Spike was made third choice.
All looked good at the top of the stretch for one of the two locals to upset Country Free in the Derby. Spike had just assumed the lead and was running strong. It was his race to lose. Macho was third and poised to pounce. Country Free was back in fourth and was going to need his powerful closing rush to catch the leaders.
He found it, and when the dust settled Country Free had won by three-quarters of a length over Mr. Macho with Spike a neck back of that rival in third. It was a hard-fought victory for Country Free, and of course, trouble lurked, as he survived a claim of foul lodged by Mr. Macho's ride, Irwin Driedger.
Spike's downfall? The distance was more than he would have preferred and a vigorous stretch ride by Cliff Thompson seemed to put the copper bay off his stride, causing him to lose all chance at the win.
But it was oh so close for a Derby win by the two popular locals!
July 17, 1971 - Winner: Speedy Zephyr
This classy shipper raced only once at the Downs, but he made it count. The Les Lear-trained colt was a star on the turf, but Lear couldn't be certain how he would take to the Downs' racing surface. Speedy may have been a shipper, but Lear grew up in Winnipeg on Alexander Avenue and won three Grey Cups with his hometown Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
This Derby was run during a heavy prairie rainstorm, but that suited Charlie Rathgeb's chestnut just fine. Unhurried out of the gate but easily in control of the race by the quarter pole, he made every post a winning one. Speedy ran the perfect race, bettering the track record at each point-of-call and taking a full second off the existing track record, running the 1 1/8-miles in 1:48 flat. In addition to setting a new track record at the Downs, his time was a Canadian record, bettering the previous mark of 1:48 3/5 set at Woodbine.
What made the Zephyr’s run even more impressive was the torrential downpour that occurred as the horses were being ushered to the paddock for saddling. The rain forced the large crowd to take cover under the grandstand and was so heavy that viewing the race was difficult. The storm came too late to change the condition of the track, but Speedy Zephyr took to the off-surface like bees to honey. In the end, he laid a criminal-like beating on an unsuspecting group of formidable opponents.
Tom Cosgrove, the man in charge of Woodbine's archives and a great colleague in the very small world horseracing historians, knew Speedy Zephyr and wasn't surprised by his dominance in the Derby. Tom said that he was a horse that could have been a poster-boy for horses that handle the turf to off-track transition as smooth as silk, and shared this memory:
"I recall the classy Speedy Zephyr with great fondness. I remember his smooth and effortless stride on the training turf course at Fort Erie on an early morning in August 1971, his three-year-old year.
“His usual exercise rider John Hogan was aboard, and seeing the two of them glide around the track was like watching poetry in motion. Speedy's golden chestnut coat gleaming in the sun enhanced his growing reputation as a turf superstar. He would go on later that season to win grass stake events on both sides of the border.
“Speedy was one of the most athletically-gifted horses I was ever around. He was born to be great and he showed it!"
And as Forest Gump would say, that's all I have to say about…
Derby runs to remember.