by Bob Gates
Can you believe that come opening day, Monday May 22, 235 days will have passed since our four-legged athletes were called to the post here at the Downs last September 28. So, who’s ready for some live racing!
If your keeping track, 2023 will be season #66 which means that on June 10 the Downs’ birthday cake will have 65 candles. Mandatory retirement age?
No sir! Assiniboia Downs continues to meet the challenges the racing gods throw our way and just keeps on ticking. What milestones do we have to look forward to and back on as we enter the 2023 season, you ask?
First and foremost, the August 7, 2023 Manitoba Derby will be the 75th Running of the classic and features a purse of $125,000.
1893 - 130 years ago: Formal horse racing, mostly in the form of harness racing, got its start at old River Park, which opened as a picnic and campground in 1891 and before long became a year-round facility. Its main attraction in the early years were a half-mile racetrack and a grandstand. River Park was located at the foot of what is now the St. Vital Bridge and covered approximately 130 acres in the area known as Churchill Drive Park.
1963 - 60 years ago: While we usually recognize local milestones and anniversaries, sometimes exceptions must be made. On August 2, a smallish horse by the name of Northern Dancer broke his maiden at Fort Erie racetrack.
Who knew? In May 1964, following his win in the Kentucky Derby, E. P. Taylor’s Dancer was still eligible for the 1964 Manitoba Derby. Taylor’s champion never made the trip to Manitoba, as his schedule was booked with trips to the other two legs of the American Triple Crown. Next to Secretariat, jockey Ron Turcotte said that Northern Dancer was the greatest horse he ever rode!
1973 - 50 years ago: The 1970s are widely accepted as the “Golden Age of Horse Racing.” The decade featured three Triple Crown winners and Secretariat got things going when he captured the elusive crown in 1973. It had been 25 years since Citation had completed the sweep of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes.
Who knew? Citation and Secretariat both raced nine times as 2-year-olds and won eight of those races. As 3-year-olds each lost one race on their way to the Triple Crown, and each had an easier time of the three Triple Crown races as they went along.
1973 - 50 years ago: Clayton Gray won his third of seven leading trainer titles. His other triumphs came in 1970, 1972, 1974, 1976, 1979 and 1980. Gray would retire in 2014 with 600 career wins at the Downs.
1978 - 45 years ago: On July 27, more than 27,000 people crammed the Downs on a non-race Thursday night to attend the “A Midsummer Night’s Dream 78” concert which featured Jessie Winchester, Steve Miller, and headliner the Eagles.
1993 - 30 years ago: On September 7, the Winnipeg Free Press reported that the Manitoba Jockey Club had purchased Assiniboia Downs. The Downs was the last privately-owned racetrack in Canada.
2008 – 15 years ago: Female rider Janine Stianson won the first four races on the opening day card. This marked the first time the consecutive-win feat had been accomplished on opening day. The record for most wins by a jockey on opening day at the Downs belongs to another female jock, Vicki Lynn Warhol, who scored a five-bagger in 1984.
Finally, does it get any better than this? Veteran trainer, Gary Danelson returns for yet another year of doing what he does best. The man from Scobey, Montana has been training and racing horses here in all of the eight decades that the Downs has been in operation. Welcome back Gary!
While we celebrate another opening day, not all our family and friends are here with us. It seems each year our off-season losses are getting harder to take. This past off season we mourned the loss of: Dick Bonnycastle, Brian Davies, Marjorie Davis, Laurie Elsom, Linda Johnston, Guy “Blackie” Thomas, Bob Timlick, Charlie Smith, Jack Wash and Clint Willson.
We also saw the passing of a couple of, shall we call them, distant family members. Queen Elizabeth II who was here to preside over the 1970 Manitoba Centennial Derby in 1970, as well as prolific NHL and WHA goal scorer Robert Marvin Hull who was here to celebrate L’Enjoleur’s Manitoba Derby win in 1975.
On a personal note, a good friend, Trevor Monroe lost his dear father last December. Milo Monroe raced horses here for many years and 2023 is the 50th anniversary of his Munnie Award’s win in the John Sifton Memorial.
We also want to pay tribute to a set of hoofprints as well. Cam and Sherisse Ziprick recently lost their stallion, Going Commando.
“Commando was a classy horse, good to handle, loved attention, and willingly exchanged a nicker for a carrot” – Sherisse Ziprick
The Righteous Brothers had the right idea, but instead of a rock and roll heaven, we’re talking about the memories of the footprints and hoofprints made at our west end oval we affectionately call “The Downs.”
♫♫♫ If there’s a horse racing heaven, you know its got a hell of a track!”♫♫♫
The first race of the season is the Don Gray Memorial, and this year is the 30th running. Doesn’t it seem like time moves a lot faster than it used to?
Don’t forget to mark your calendar for Opening Day, Monday May 22, 2023! Post Time is 7:30 p.m. See you at the track!