by Bob Gates
Mike Rowland rode at Assiniboia Downs from 1981 to 1984, chalking up 455 wins. While his time here was limited to four years, the young man from Saratoga Springs, New York left his footprints on the heart of Assiniboia Downs.
Mike's career spanned 26 years (1979-2004) and saw him record almost 4,000 trips to the winner's circle and earnings of more than $28,000,000. His first win came at Delta Downs in 1979 on a horse named Tam's Princess.
While his first full year at the Downs was 1981, he did ride a few races here in the latter part of the 1979 meet. In 1980 he divided his time between Santa Fe and Turf Paradise.
Early in his career, he would ride at Turf Paradise in the winter and spend the summer at the Downs before moving on to Thistledowns in 1985. During his time here he was never worse than second in the jockey standings, winning the leading rider title at the Downs' 109-day meet in 1983 with 159 victories.
While at the Downs he had a five-win day on October 17, 1983 (What A Blaze, Equal Status, Hasty Royal, Angle's Intent and Rogues' Game). On two occasions however, he recorded six wins in a single day in Ohio.
Downs' four-time leading jockey Tim Gardiner explained that it was Mike who had encouraged him to give the Downs a try. In addition, Mike's Dad Ned had spoken with Downs' trainer Mike Smith about jockey Frank Licata, and suggested that Licata was a finesse rider who would do well at the Winnipeg track.
Tragically, Rowland's career was cut short in 2004 when he died from injuries he sustained in an on-track accident during a race at Turfway Park.
The father of three had strong ties to Winnipeg. His first wife, Angie was a local girl. Unfortunately, the Downs winner's circle ceremony turned out not to be lucky, as the pair would later split-up and go their separate ways. Mike remarried in the 1990s when he met Tammy, a trainer he met at Keeneland.
I didn’t know Mike, so I'll share quotes I found from those who did:
"a very likeable young man… horses were his life"
"a perfectionist and a work ethic that was second to none"
"a public relations dream, he was the kind of positive face you want associated with horse racing, always laughing and joking"
"his contagious enthusiasm and drive for racing excellence will be sorely missed"
"his family and horse racing were one and two followed by golf and playing the guitar"
"strong, courageous and gifted, dedicated to his sport and the horses he rode, and a fun-loving guy, with a dimpled smile, blue eyes, bowed legs and the ability to play the guitar loudly, but poorly"
Hall of Fame jockey Steve Cauthen said Rowland's career was exceptional. "He averaged about 200 wins per year during his career. It just shows you how long you have to be riding at the very top level to achieve that sort of number. That's a very consistent career."
I could go on, but I think we all get the drift. Mikey was special!
Turfway Park had prepared a large white sign with orange and blue lettering in anticipation of Mike's 4,000th win. It read:
The sign had been sequestered in the track conference room waiting for the event that was never to be. Mike's quest fell two wins shy of 4,000 victories.
Turfway Park established the Michael F. Rowland Award, which goes to the jockey who best exemplifies the work ethic, professionalism and perseverance of Rowland.
The late great Bill Hartack, five time winner of the Kentucky Derby once wrote:
"I hope people understand that riding is not just a race, but our life. We have lost in my lifetime, through injury, people we love, people we like and some we don’t have feelings for at all. But race riding, in spite of its dangers, has an attraction for the little man in size. This is our arena. This is where we win. This is where we lose. This is where it's at…"
Michael Francis Rowland knew and understood the risks associated with his chosen profession, but horses and racing were his life…
and his love.
Note: My thanks to Paul Turney, one-time writer for the Daily Racing Form for suggesting Mike Rowland as a story idea.