Clifford "Shorty" Gray hired 11-year-old Irwin Driedger as an exercise rider. The young blonde schoolboy from Russell, Manitoba tipped the scales at 78 pounds and got his first win on a race track at the Neepawa Fair Grounds on horse named Admiral Zenith.
Who knew he would go on to win multiple riding titles at Assiniboia Downs and break records in the process?
By the year 1972 Irwin was riding in the bushes at the age of 16. He broke his "maiden" at a recognized track on Swishaway in a Lethbridge snowstorm in the fall of 1972. The young apprentice came to the Downs in 1973 under contract to Ken Adams, but life was tough.
Trainers would use the fair-haired kid from Russell in the morning, but wanted a more experienced rider in the irons in the evening. So Irwin's first win at the local oval would not come until June 27, 1973. And what a handsome win it was! Kenny Adams' 10-year-old Count I paid $49.10 for a $2 nose bet! The life of an apprentice in 1973 was not an easy one. Irwin cleaned stalls, groomed and galloped horses for $15 a week and free room and board.
Irwin rode at the Downs from 1973 to 1982, although he had very few mounts in 1973 and spent most of 1974 in a cast recuperating from a broken leg courtesy of a quarter horse that bolted to the outside fence in Great Falls, Montana. The years 1975 and 1976 improved some for Irwin, but his career win total had not yet reached 100.
In 1979 Irwin won a Downs' record 161 races and in 1980 he bettered his own record with 180 wins. In 1981 he shot out the lights, when he established the Downs' current record for the most wins by a jockey in a single season at 214, a record will likely never be broken considering the amount of days we run now.
You can't talk about Irwin and his career accomplishments without giving his friend and colourful agent, Lorne Spearman, the credit he is due! The two have been inseparable throughout Irwin's career.
In 1983 Irwin returned home for the Manitoba Derby and registered his last win ever here aboard Gone to Royalty, which was also his only Manitoba Derby winner.
When you consider Irwin's accomplishments on the local and national horse racing scene, it's as though the local print media shunned him. There have been surprisingly few feature articles about Russell's native son over the years.
Irwin, like others before him, knew that his future was at the larger eastern tracks, so off he went to ply his trade at Woodbine, Greenwood and Fort Erie. It was economics, plain and simple.
In 1981 he won 220 races (214 locally) for a total of $800,000 in purses. In 1984 he won 111 races down east, for purses that totaled $1.6 million. Need more be said?
- 1979: Received the Chris McCance Memorial Trophy as Manitoba's Male Athlete of the Year for his new record 161 wins at the Downs.
- 1981: Won a Sovereign Award as Canada's Outstanding Jockey. The Sovereign Award is Canada's equivalent to the Eclipse Award given to jockeys in the United States. He also received the Joe Perlove Trophy for being Canada's leading percentage rider.
- 1998: Recipient of the Avelino Gomez Memorial Award, which is given to the Canadian born/raised jockey who has made significant contributions to the sport.
Retirement came in 1990. Irwin explained that he never intended to ride for more than 20 years. Making the weight had taken its toll and it got to the point where the fun was gone. He just didn't want to do it any more. Regrets? Absolutely none.
Horses that were special to Irwin over his years at the Downs included Astral Moon, Baladi, Victor's Pride, Major Enterprise, Scarlet Rich and Liz's Pride. August 12, 1990 marked the last time Irwin rode at the Downs, and he had already announced that he was retiring to become the managing director of the Jockeys' Guild of Canada. Irwin is still in the racing business. Since 2006 he's been the Director of Thoroughbred Racing Surfaces and Fleet at Woodbine.
Why did he return to the Downs for the final ride of his career?
Because C.J. "Shorty" Gray, the man who discovered him riding a pony as an 11-year-old on a street in Russell, Manitoba, asked him to.
They dubbed August 12, 1990 "Irwin Driedger Day" at the Downs, and it could have been a classic fairy tale ending to his stellar career, but the best he could muster from his three mounts that day were a third and two fifth-place finishes.
The riding star on Irwin Driedger Day was young Brian Bochinski, who had most of his riding career ahead of him. It just so happened that Irwin was the jock that Brian idolized, and the new heir to the throne went on to pattern himself...
after the jock with the golden locks.