by Bob Gates
It's Oscar time folks and this week we recognize some of Assiniboia Downs' finest equine performances.
Who in their right mind would even attempt to cross this minefield?
Yours truly of course, and why not? I've never claimed to be of sound mind, or body for that matter. Even so, where do you begin?
Well, I figure if we are talking about the best of the best, why not look at champions who set a track record? It goes without saying that if a track record was set, the split times should be stellar, bordering on suicidal. Next up, the record setting winner should have won a stakes race in the process.
Are there any flaws in this basic premise? Of course, but you have to start somewhere. Not to mention, I'm fine if it inspires good natured debate and causes us to remember other fine runners from days gone by.
So which historic record runs do we remember today?
I narrowed it down to three races, all run at 1 1/8-miles, where the winners delivered something special. In chronological order, the nominees are:
Pool to Market - 1967 Gold Cup
In this race, the 10th running of the Assiniboia Downs Gold Cup, the 5-year-old gelded son of Farm to Market outran and out-lasted a field that was described as "the finest ever assembled in a race in the history of racing in Western Canada." High praise indeed!
So classy was this group that the John Sifton-owned and Bert Blake-trained chestnut was overlooked by the betting public and paid $22.50, $8.90 and $5.00 across the board.
Needless to say, it took a track record romp to win this Gold Cup. Pool to Market covered the 1 1/8-miles in 1:49 seconds, bettering the previous record by 2/5 of a second -- a record that had been set eight years earlier.
The key to the victory was a good old fashioned case of horse and rider becoming one. Jockey Bobby Stewart went to the lead right out of gate and was in control by the quarter pole. From there, Pool to Market and Stewart put on a clinic. They took on all challengers and rebuffed them all. The pair was magic under a starlit summer night. Bobby was a master at judging pace and instinctively knew how much horse he had left. The winning margin was a short nose, but then again, isn’t that all it takes?
The Gold Cup would be the gelding's only race at the Downs, but what a race it was! A true classic.
Speedy Zephyr - 1971 Manitoba Derby
Speedy Zephyr's record setting effort in the 23rd running of our Manitoba Derby was something else.
While it didn’t take a record run to for Charlie Rathgeb's colt to win the Derby, Speedy Zephyr's time of 1:48 smashed the mark set by Pool to Market four years earlier by a full second.
Trained by football star and hometown boy Les Lear, Speedy Zephyr was hustled to the front early and won as he pleased. He literally coasted to a 7 1/2-length victory and as you might expect set lightning fast split times. On this day, jockey Herb Hinijosa was just a passenger.
What made Speed Zephyr's run even more impressive was the torrential downpour that occurred just as the horses were led onto the track for the post parade. The rain forced the large crowd to take cover and it was so heavy that viewing the race through the rain was difficult. The storm came too late to change the condition of the track, but let's just say that Speedy Zephyr took to the track like a bee to honey. In the end, he laid a criminal-like beating on an unsuspecting group of formidable opponents.
In addition to setting a new track record at the Downs, Speedy's time was also good enough to set a Canadian record, bettering the record of 1:48 3/5 set at Woodbine.
Overskate - 1978 Manitoba Derby
Our third and final nominee is none other than current Downs' 1 1/8-mile record holder, Overskate, for his flawless run to glory in the 30th edition of the "Run for the Tartan."
Perhaps the words "total dominance" best describe Overskate's win. In this case the race was over after about six furlongs, and probably even earlier. The other competitors should have thrown in the towel, headed back to the barn and saved themselves for another day.
You have to fight not to minimalize Overskate's effort, he made it look so easy. I'm not sure that any horse who ever won a race at the Downs won with as much left in the tank as Jack Stafford's little colt.
Free Press horse racing writer and national award winning racing columnist, George Williams once described Overskate as running the entire race "bent in half." Stafford's pride and joy was never asked for run, ever, and increased his lead with every stride.
Overskate circled the local oval under no more pressure than the brightly painted ponies on a merry-go-round. The margin of victory was modestly tallied at 13 1/2-lengths, but even that flattered the competition, because it could have been more, a lot more actually. The chestnut colt eclipsed the record set by Speedy Zephyr in 1971, establishing a new mark of 1:47 3/5 for the 1 1/8-mile distance. Overskate's record still stands today.
I cannot emphasize enough, that Overskate was never pushed or threatened. I suspect the only malady the Ontario-based blueblood suffered from was a good case of loneliness running all by himself on the front end. It's scary to think how fast he could have gone. Jockey, Robin Platts never touched the chestnut multiple graded-stakes winner. There was simply no need, Overskate was in a class by himself.
Each of our nominees ran but one race at the Downs and with the exception of the first few jumps out of the gate, all three led gate to wire. Coincidentally, official form charts show that all three broke fourth. It wasn't long however, before they all had their race well in hand, even though the margins of victory varied from a mere nose to 13 plus lengths.
|Pool to Market||22||45 1/5||1:10 2/5||1:36 3/5||1:49|
|Speedy Zephyr||22||45||1:10 1/5||1:34 4/5||1:48|
|Overskate||23 2/5||46 2/5||1:10 4/5||1:35||1:47 3/5|
The envelope please… and the winner is?
Particularly if you were one of the more than 15,000 patrons who saw these races first-hand, and regardless of whether you watched from the grassed area in front of the paddock, the tarmac or the grandstand on those three days…
You witnessed history in the making, at Assiniboia Downs.