by Bob Gates
Perhaps you've seen him before, the short heavy-set old man sitting on a bench in front of the grandstand. Certainly not recently because of the "no fans in the stands" directive, but in previous years the solitary senior could be found at his ground-level perch a couple of hours prior to the start of the races.
He sits there, alone with his thoughts, watching as the track crew preps the racing surface. As he stares into space thinking of another time, he remembers the horses, owners, trainers and jocks of the eight decades that the Downs has been in operation.
He was but a boy when Assiniboia Downs was in its infancy. The Downs was his first racetrack. He knew about the hallowed grounds of River Park, Whittier Park and Polo Park, but only as a result of his keen interest in racing. You see, the old boy fancies himself as a bit of a historian.
The old man has never owned a horse, but horse racing has always had a special place in his heart. Some don’t like the term "fan," but if you were to ask him that's how he'd label himself. He's a fan, one with a penchant for the history of the sport, but a fan nonetheless, and proud of it!
He's a lover of the Downs and considers the old grandstand the other woman in his life. That’s okay though, because we're told his wife knows and understands his passion.
If we were granted the power of reading his mind, here are some of the names that would bring a grin to his face and a warm feeling to his heart as he thinks back on the history of the Portage Avenue track.
Some 20, 40, 50 and 60 years ago...
In 1960 the Downs, like the old man, was a bright-eyed youth. Those were the days when Flak Mark, Galindo, Broad Zone, Fanny's One, Royal Ghost, Boots Darling, Spring's Best, Valquestion, Fremarcton and Kenny K were winning races.
Riders Tommy Stadnyk, Keith Robinson, Guy Contrada, Jim Fitzsimmons, Len Pong, George Gubbins, Gord Nedeau, Jim Vinson, Russell Lacy and Fred Tobacco hung their tack in the "room."
Trainers included Glen Magnusson, Paul Goddard, Jim Roberts, Harry Howell, Andy Smithers, Dave Warner, Tom Patton, Bud Mathes, George Howell and Doug Whitfield.
Familiar stables that year belonged to Gary Danelson, Glen Stewart, Luella Schoen, Koltes Investments, Lonnie Marsh, Jim Benjamin, Ivan Dowler, JY Stables, Bobby Franklin and Ed Scherbenske.
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Jumping ahead 10 years, and the old man recalls the decade we celebrated three Triple Crown winners. The west end track in 1970 saw thoroughbreds Fall Session, Rangatira, Firm Foundation, My Game, Tarry News, Swaps Turn, Ruling Lark, Hal S, Prince Robby and Windsor Moon running for glory.
Jockeys included Bobby Stewart, Robert Bray, Bobbie Dimma, Ray Correa, Jim Anderson, Ed Werre, Dale Wright, Bernie Howland Joe Selyem and Kenny "Hank" Hendricks.
Clayton Gray, Gary Danelson, George Howell, Glenn Ball, Ed Wasson, Bert Blake, “Old” Bob Ramsay, John Gray, Bob "Boo Boo" Watt and John Cizik were all sending winners to the gate.
Owners who had runners in the barns in 1970 included Maxwell King Stables, The Turfers, Bar-Ace Stable, Harold Bieber, Pinehurst Farms, John Davidson, Lloyd Gray & Sons, Question Mark Farms, Harry Crane and Ed Ragen.
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Come 1980 the old man's gift of recall wasn't really tested and there are names that some of us will have an easier time remembering. Those were the days of Persian Memories, Beausejour Boy, Northern Spike, Grosswin, Picatune, Bolero Jet, Major Enterprise, Fleeting Heritage, Mr. Macho and Turn to Rule.
Irwin Driedger, Cliff Thompson, Peter McAleney, Jacques DesAutels, Jack Wash, Mark Oster, Larry Bird, Tommy Adkins, Vicki Warhol and Brian Clair were saddlesmiths practicing their trade.
Trainers saddling winners in 1980 were Clayton Gray, John Gray, Sandy McPherson, "Red" Johnson, Walter Adams, "Shorty" Gray, Don Gray, Karen Hendricks, Brian Palaniuk and Les Wedge Jr.
Ivan Dowler & Sons, Peoples Stable, K4 Stables, Big M Stable, Big Boy Stable, Hugh Jackson, Les & Iris Wedge, Bill Teske, Gilbert Ducharme and Lawrence Anonychuk were owners who were doing well at the Downs.
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The year 2000 is as close to current times as the old man will take us on this journey through time. It was the year of runners like Corporate Shuffle, Gus Again, Smoky Cinder, Parose, Breaker Breaker, Fancy As, Farm Girl, Christmas Lights, Constant Star and Benelli.
Jocks accepting mounts at the turn of the century were Rohan Singh, Jacques DesAutels, Mike McMullen, Robert Munoz, Jamie Santos, Robert May, Gary Melanson, Tom Adkins, Tim Gardiner and Jerry Pruitt.
Ardell Sayler, Gary Danelson, Emile Corbel, Brian Palaniuk, Chad Torevell, Darla Singh, Blair Miller, Harry Kube, Lorna Gray and Tommy Dodds were thoroughbred conditioners making regular visits to the winner's circle.
Owners K5 Stables, Gary Danelson, Red Ron Farm, Elizabeth Rolfson, Scott Wilson & Lomac Stable, William Maulding, Randy Weir, "Rusty" Edwards and Luxiana Farms stabled horses at the Downs in 2000.
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As he reminisces, the old man knows nothing lasts forever. He wonders how much more time he has left to enjoy the races in the shadow of his 62-year-old mistress. He spends more time considering his mortality than he would like these days. He takes comfort however, in the decades of special memories that make up the fabric…
We call Assiniboia Downs.