by Bob Gates
This year marks the 10th season that the history blog has been recalling racing memories. Back in 2012, I was asked to write a weekly historical blog that would run during the Downs live thoroughbred race meet.
Fast forward to the present -- 180 stories later -- and we're still going strong. Hard to believe that I have the dream job of writing about racing's past. How did I get so lucky? Consider this… I wasn't a writer, but with the guidance and patience of my editor, George Williams, I've made significant strides towards improving the quality of my storytelling. Thanks George!
I'm certainly no horseman. The closest I ever got to a horse was a trail ride adventure at Falcon Lake and I wasn't even a teen yet. So what do I bring to the table? Passion and a love for horses, the sport, and the people of the backside.
I can quite confidently say I have been following the races at Assiniboia Downs for at least 60 years, covering seven different decades. The other day I wondered what my first question would be if I was interviewing myself? How about, “What is your favorite racing memory, Bob?”
Tough question? Nope, and my answer will surprise you. It's not a Derby or some other special stakes race. My choice is one of those run-of-the-mill races. It wasn't historic or great, but it was memorable.
It was the sixth race on the night of August 20, 1976. The star of this memory was a 6-year-old mare, Dashing Demon, and you're forgiven if her name isn't a familiar one. “Demon” was owned by Frank Weiner's Hungry I Stable, trained by Walter "The Halter" Adams, and on this night she was ridden by Larry Bird, but to tell her story I should set the scene.
I was in love, or so I thought. Little did I know what life had in store for me. My 24th birthday was still four months away. I was so young! Seven more years would pass before I met the love of my life, and two more years would go by before we were married in 1985.
It was Friday, August 20, 1976. The Downs’ meet was coming to an end with the final day of racing set for September 7. You have to remember that once racing was done back then, the track was shuttered until the following spring when the thoroughbreds returned.
It's odd, but other than the one race, the night is a blur. I have no memory of the races preceding the sixth or the ones that followed. For the longest time I thought Dashing Demon's race was the final race of the night, but it turns out it was race #6 on the eight-race card.
I must confess, I've always had a soft spot for front-running mares.
"This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate." ~ Charles Dickens
The race was for fillies and mares, 3-year-olds and up, carrying a claiming price of $2,000. The program called Dashing Demon a 6-year-old dark bay or brown mare, but her coloring would give anyone the impression she was as black as shined coal. She was drop-dead gorgeous in the post parade. Her coat glistened in the warm summer air. She was so captivating you couldn't take your eyes off her and she wore the lucky #7 saddle cloth.
The August sun had set about an hour before the 9:30 p.m. post time for the race, so it was dark. The track lights reflected off Demon and her coat glistened. I cannot recall my wager, at that time it would have been no more than $5 or $10, but that wasn't important. Truth be told, I wasn't really expecting her to win. She was a speedball with a nasty habit of having trouble lasting 5- or 5 ½- furlongs and on this night she was going six panels.
It was a quick load and hard to see with the gate located at the far end of the track. Demon’s rider, Larry Bird, hustled her to the front and by the quarter-pole she had cleared the nine-horse field by three. Before you knew it, she was going into the barn turn. She looked stunning leading the way.
There was a storm brewing north of the track, and the cloud-lightning provided the perfect backdrop. The lightning produced an effect of mega flashbulbs going off in the distance and sparked to "life" the Demon's black silhouette.
I feared that her lead wasn't likely to last, and it didn't. Before long, reality set in and one of the favourites, Peaceful Crusade with Irwin Driedger aboard, collared her. Driedger got his mount's head in front at the half and held that lead to the top of the stretch. Then something wonderful happened. Demon accepted the challenge and didn't fold like a cheap suit. She dug in for all she was worth and then some.
I haven't mentioned that the racing surface was off ever so slightly, and the track was soft and cuppy. At the head of the stretch, Larry found a nice path several feet off the rail, leaving Driedger and his mount in the softer stuff closer to the fence.
The Demon ran like she was possessed and drew away, winning by three lengths. I cannot put into words the euphoria of the evening. Did I get rich? Hardly, but that didn’t matter. It wasn't just the fact that she won, it was how she won. She went against her usual form, and we'll never know why, but what a performance! Demon was a class act on that hot August night. It's a race that still resonates with me 45 years later, and that makes it special.
Thinking back to that Friday night so very long ago, I better understand why this memory trumps all others over the course of my 60-year association with Assiniboia Downs. I guess I was in love. Her name?
… Dashing Demon of course!