by Bob Gates
Does the title of our blog story this week have a familiar ring to it? Hope so.
Most of you are probably too young to remember the 1959 American courtroom drama and crime film "Anatomy of a Murder" produced and directed by Otto Preminger. The film stars included Jimmy Stewart, Lee Remick and Ben "Run for Your Life" Gazzara.
-- Anatomy: A study of the structure or internal workings of something.
-- Similar: analysis, examination, inspection, investigation, dissection
Our focus is not a murder, but rather the Downs’ six-furlong track record. The stars of our story are the four-legged athletes responsible for the history of this prime distance, from the day the track opened to 1989, the year the fastest time to date was recorded.
Why six furlongs and not another? Mostly because the distance is a popular one that has been run more than any other over the years. A review of the Downs’ races for the first 20 years revealed that more than 40% were 6-furlongs.
Since 1958, five horses have the distinction of having set the Downs’ record for six furlongs. In chronological order they are: Mazur (1:10 2/5) September 19, 1958, Rangatira (1:10 1/5) May 20, 1973, Sunraysed (1:09 3/5) May 22, 1978, Intercontinent (1:09 1/5) May 18, 1981, and Nephrite (1:09) October 8, 1989.
On June 16, 1958, Jet Speed won the first running of the City of Winnipeg Handicap and covered the six furlongs in 1:09 3/5, setting not only a new Downs’ record, but also a new Canadian record, bettering the existing mark set by E. P. Taylor's Nearctic at Woodbine racetrack on June 4, 1958. Needless to say this got the tongues wagging in the east.
Downs' General Manager Scotty Kennedy was curious and a tad suspicious about some of the rather fast times being posted at his track. When the distance was re-measured Scotty's worst fears came to pass. Sure enough, the six-furlong pole had been improperly positioned. In addition, the original measurements had been taken at the rail, rather than the standard three feet off the fence.
There were plenty of red faces around the track and more than enough embarrassment for all associated with this "oopsie" moment. Leading that list was the man whose company had been charged with building the track, Henry Borger. The proper adjustments were made and all was well in "Downsville" once again.
The horse widely given credit for establishing the "go-to" time for the first six-furlong record was 4-year-old Mazur, who covered the six panels in 1:10 2/5. The only question that remains is whether this took place on September 18 or 19.
Old track programs show the date of the race as September 18. The Winnipeg Free Press cover story had the race being run on a Friday night, but September 18 was a Thursday. So while we are left to wonder which date is correct, we are certain that Mazur with Ken Coppernoll aboard ran six furlongs in 1:10 2/5.
Mazur's record would stand for almost 15 years and would be equalled no fewer than six times, twice by Rangatira (1970, 1972) and once each by Midland Empire (1959), Chanting Voice (1968), Toy Stand (June 1971) and Kidden Around (July 1971).
On May 20, 1973, Rangatira was finally able to chop 1/5th of a second off the existing time, lowering the mark to 1:10 1/5. Rangatira was an 8-year-old son of the mighty Nashua. Bobbie Dimma was in the saddle for the ride and Don Gray was the trainer of record, but Don always gave credit to then-wife Lorna, who did all the galloping and leg work for her boy.
Rangatira's stellar effort would last five years before Sunraysed reduced the mark by 3/5ths of a second. The new time to beat, 1:09 3/5, was set on May 22, 1978. On that day the Tom Dodds-trained, "Sunny" was ridden by Clifford Thompson for Dacotah Thoroughbred Stable.
And talk about a good-looking field of horses. The next three finishers after Doddsie's 5-year-old were Macale, Island Fling and Proud Chief! Sunraysed's 1:09 3/5 would be matched by some other awfully nice horses, Icy Welcome in June 1978, and another Dodds’ charge, Beau Blade in May 1979.
Fast forward three years when Phil Kives' Intercontinent was firing on all cylinders. On May 18, 1981, Ken "Hank" Hendricks and his K5 mount clipped 2/5ths of a second off Sunny's time to establish a new mark of 1:09 1/5. A year later, Ivan Dowler's speedy Northern Spike equalled the 1:09 1/5. Intercontinent's record survived for more than eight years and was thought by many to be "untouchable."
Who knew? The day the 7-year-old set the record he carried 127 pounds!
Then along came Stan Ryan's Nephrite, yes, another Tommy Dodds-trained speedster. On October 8, 1989, 5-year-old Nephrite set the current six furlong record in a time of 1:09 flat!
Ridden by Brian Bochinski, Nephrite literally ran the race of his life and that's not an exaggeration. Four months previous, Nephrite was in a fight for his life. His stomach was twisted in "knots" to the point where he was given only a 10% chance of survival.
Thanks to the great work of Dr. Norm Elder and the post-surgical care provided by Dodds, the dark bay gelding overcame his harrowing experience. The mere fact that he even raced again, let alone won AND bettered the "untouchable" time of 1:09 1/5, was nothing short of remarkable. Nephrite’s performance that day rivals any other ever seen at Assiniboia Downs.
Nephrite's 1:09 is not going to be beat, and neither are any of the other existing records. This doesn't speak to the quality of the horses who are capable of posting record-breaking times, but rather the makeup of the Downs racing surface, which is slower, softer and sandier, but safer for our nickering T-Breds.
The last Downs track record occurred 30 years ago. On September 19, 1992, Sunny Famous bettered the 5 1/2-furlong mark by 1/5th of a second, stopping the clock at 1:02 4/5. The clock hasn't been stopped faster since, no matter what the distance.
Mazur, Rangatira, Sunraysed, Intercontinent and Nephrite we salute you. They, like Tom Hanks, Geena Davis and Madonna were…
In "A League of Their Own."