On Monday, August 6, the Manitoba Derby will celebrate its 64th running, but this past July 19 marked the 43rd anniversary of what might have been the best ever Derby run at Assiniboia Downs – one that was just out of this world.
The 1969 classic had all of the elements of a great race. First and foremost it took place on the eve of the greatest historical achievement in the history on mankind, the July 20, 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing with Neil Armstrong and company. In addition, five of the nine combatants were sired by Nearctic, the sire of the great Northern Dancer.
Two of the countries top jockeys were on hand to try and win the $12,500 added Derby. Avelino Gomez was riding Warren Beasley’s Icy Song and Brian Swatuk was riding Conn Smythe’s The Northerner. Gomez had just finished notching his fourth Queen’s Plate win aboard Beasley’s Jumpin Joseph and Swatuk had ridden 224 winners and won $580,424 in purse money in 1968 to make him Canada’s top jock.
Beasley pretty much embodied everything westerners have come to dislike about certain eastern interests. He won the Queen’s Plate with Jumpin Joseph, who had been rumored to be headed west to contest Manitoba’s derby, but somewhere along the way these plans were derailed.
There were stories that the Queen’s Plate winner was injured and couldn’t make the trip and maybe he was, but there were other reports which suggested that may be our Derby just wasn’t worthy of his presence. I remember reading an article wherein Jumpin Joseph’s connections were quoted as saying “why use a shotgun when a rifle will do the job!”
Needless to say, such reports did nothing to improve the popularity of Icy Song. Icy Song’s jockey, “El Perfecto” (Gomez) had a colourful personality and carried himself with a distinct arrogance, but he was soon to turn 41 and it appeared that his best years were possibly behind him.
Fire N Desire was a true “rags to riches” story as a former claimer and the true “Cinderella” horse in the race. His owners, Sam Lima and Morris Rose, had claimed the colt for a measly $12,000. Fire N Desire had won more than $30,000 since being claimed for Rose and Lima, bolstered by a victory in the Queens’ Plate Derby Trial and a third-place finish to Jumpin Joseph in the Queen’s Plate. Rose and Lima thought enough about the Derby to ship their horse in early to run in the St. James-Assiniboia Handicap, which at the time was the prep race for the Derby. And if that wasn’t enough, he was slated to be ridden by four-time leading jockey at the Downs, Dickie Armstrong.
Fire N Desire was sent postward as the favourite with Icy Song not far behind. The official form chart reflects that after the opening quarter Fire N Desire bested Icy Song all the way to the wire, but several years later Dick Armstrong told me that Icy Song got his nose in front a couple of times in between the points of call. After a grueling battle in the stretch, Fire N Desire beat Icy Song by a “short” head, some even called it a nose, and set up, at that time, a record low Quinella of $3.10. The resulting Quinella was thought to have been a foregone conclusion, a “gimmie” as it were.
The finish met with thunderous applause as Fire N Desire and Armstrong outlasted Icy Song and Gomez in what was truly one of the best stretch duels of all time at the Downs. The edge went to Armstrong, who had pinned Gomez down on the rail. The headline in the Winnipeg Free Press said it all – “Fire N Desire Had Just Enough of Both.”
For what it’s worth, this race in my humble view will go down as one of, if not the best horse race ever run at the Downs, “out of this world” if you will. I remember it as clearly as if it had happened yesterday.
And if you will permit me a personal indulgence – what was extra-special for me was the fact that this was a day that my Dad and I had made a father and son day at the races. It’s a day that I remember fondly and probably the most special day that my Dad and I ever shared. And yes, the very next day a man landed on the moon!
So there you have it, a Derby tale that is out of this world. On July 19, 1969 Dick Armstrong won the Manitoba Derby aboard Fire N Desire and the following day Neil Armstrong aboard Lunar Module “Eagle” won the race to be the first man on the moon, landing safely at the Sea of Tranquility.
Two Armstrongs making history worlds apart.