by Bob Gates
All of you who remember or who have ever heard of a horse named "Bimbo" please raise your hands.
I don't see many arms in the air.
That's not unexpected.
Until I found an old obscure newspaper article from the now defunct Winnipeg Tribune I didn't know Bimbo from Adam.
So who was Bimbo?
The short answer is that Bimbo was a pony horse in Clayton Gray's barn back in the 1960s, but there's more, so much more to Bimbo's story.
By definition a "pony horse" is any workhorse at a race track, and that was Bimbo. Back in the day, Clayton used this Thoroughbred-Percheron cross for just about everything related to the racing of horses.
Researching information on a pony horse from almost 50 years ago was a challenge. As you might imagine, Bimbo's name didn’t make it into the sports pages of the Tribune or Free Press very often. There was one solitary article, but more on that in a minute. I had to rely on the personal accounts of Clayton, his son Allan and Dr. Ross McKague who was Clayton's vet in the '70s.
Allan said that Bimbo was a "great old guy." In the winter he was part of his grandfather Lloyd's team, for the rest of the year he was the "go to" pony for the Clayton Gray Racing Stable. Bimbo occupied the first stall on the southeast side of Barn C. His "primary job" was keeping watch for the morning feed guy, because he knew that when the light went on in his room, it was time to eat.
Bimbo would nicker to wake all the other horses so they wouldn't miss their breakfast. He was always the first to remind his equine friends when feed time was approaching. Allan remembered how he, his brother Randy and sister Brenda, would all fit on Bimbo's broad back. He was a gentle, kind, four-legged friend.
The other night at the track I was speaking with Ross and Brenda McKague. I was aware of Ross' connection with Clayton and casually asked if he knew anything about a pony horse by the name of Bimbo? Truth be told, I wasn't expecting a positive answer, but I thought it doesn’t hurt to ask?
Much to my surprise and delight a smile came to Ross's face as he explained that Bimbo was an amazing animal who did everything that was ever asked of him. Ross described Bimbo as one of the unsung heroes of the backstretch. He was a "plain Jane, stout almost black horse."
According to McKague, Bimbo schooled young horses, ponied horses to the gate, and when necessary, was used a shield when a bad actor was being saddled. What made Bimbo special? The now retired vet from Brandon said that Bimbo was absolutely "bomb-proof."
Could there be a more glowing endorsement for a horse than Ross McKague's final thought, "race horses run as fast as they can, but Bimbo went places and did things which were counter intuitive to the horse as a species."
And I've saved the best for last.
The Manitoba Derby is just around the corner and what possible "tie-in" could Bimbo's story have to the August 1 Derby? Well, Bimbo just happened to be the pony that took Northern Dancer's son Nice Dancer to the gate in the 1972 Manitoba Derby.
So how much help was Bimbo to the third betting choice, Nice Dancer, who wired the field in the 1972 Derby?
I guess we'll never know for sure, but Nice Dancer's jockey that day, Bobby Stewart, had a virus and a temperature of 102. So the Downs six-time leading rider could use all the help he could get to win his one and only Manitoba Derby.
On Derby Day in 1972 Bimbo was the glue that held everything together, but I'll let the Tribune's Jack Matheson explain. I found the following quote from an "interview" that Jack did with Bimbo following Nice Dancer's Derby win.
"We had a nice stroll out there," Bimbo was saying Sunday morning while people came by to pay their respects. "I told Dancer they were watching from coast to coast and he got the message. I told him he shouldn't forget one of his owners was a Winnipegger and his trainer used to ride here and his jock was big stuff at this track, and he should show those Easterners how to cover a distance of ground. I also told him a nice lady in Dugald, out there past Transcona, stood to make a hundred grand if he won, and I think that's what did it."
You're probably wondering how it came to be that the Trib's sport's editor would write about a pony horse. I know I did.
Clayton Gray knew the answer. He told me that Jack was a frequent visitor to the backside and his kids got pony rides on big gentle Bimbo. Yes, even crusty old scribe Jack had a soft spot for Bimbo.
I'll leave the final words on Bimbo to Clayton but before I do, I have to say something about Clayton Douglas Gray.
I have a lot of respect for the man from Dominion City. No one has more stories they can tell about the sport we all love. He amazes me every time I speak with him. He'll tell a story which will lead to another and another after that. The next thing you know you've been talking to Clayton for an hour, but it's been an hour well-spent!
Clayton Gray ranks 9th on the Downs All Time Leading Trainer list with 600 wins, despite a 20 year absence when he trained in the US. Had he not left, it's hard to say how many races he would have won at the Downs, and you'll have to look long and hard to find a better judge of horse flesh.
Clayton summed up Bimbo like this:
"He was a wonderful pony, the best I ever had. He wouldn't be pushed around, never got lazy and loved what he did. Some ponies can be nut cases but not Bimbo. He would handle any horse you threw at him. He was the best there ever was!"
In his own special way, Bimbo was a legend. Whether they knew him or not, other fine ponies (outrider horses included) would follow in his footsteps; Max, Harley, Champagne, Louie, Brad (Bradley), Star, Taz, Fred, Rocko, Tony the Pony and our current lead ponies Harley and Cav, and oh so many more!
All of these fine ponies and all of their kind…
aspire to the legacy of Bimbo.