by Bob Gates
More than 40 years ago, the late Philip Kives built his K5 racing empire on the back of Island Fling. Phil couldn't recall how he met up with Don Gray, but Gray was the man he approached about buying a horse and getting into the racing biz. According to the Master of K5, Don spent two years looking for just the right horse.
It all came together on Remembrance Day in 1976. A horse Don had been watching was making a start in a $30,000 claiming race at Greenwood. As luck would have it, this was the only time that Island Fling ran for a "tag." Well, Phil was "all in." He had himself a 5-year-old bay stallion with Donny Gray as his trainer.
Gray brought the ungelded son of Pago Pago, out of Kan Jive by Mister Jive to Winnipeg where he eagerly awaited the start of the Downs 1977 racing season. In the three years that followed Island Fling dominated the best horses on the grounds. You're probably thinking, it was all peaches and cream and they lived happily ever after, right? Ah… no!
Island Fling was sick that spring and it didn't help matters that he had a nasty habit of eating his bedding straw, which the barn didn't notice straightaway. The first morning Don worked him, a crowd gathered to check out Phil's new horse. Don ran him with the cheapest claimer in his barn and wouldn’t you know it, the plater trounced the would-be-king from the east by a bunch. Not a great start to life at Assiniboia.
“Don Gray was an excellent trainer,” said Winnipeg Free Press racing writer George Williams, who worked as a groom for Gray in 1977 and 1978. “It just took him a little bit of time to figure Island Fling out. He switched his bedding to peat moss, and he used to do something for his breathing before his races too. Once he found the keys to a horse, he could keep them winning at a high level, and that’s just what he did with Island Fling.
“Before he came here, I think Island Fling was primarily a sprinter, but Gray turned him into an excellent router. He was a tough, tough horse, with a great kick home from the three-eighths pole. When he was at the top of his game, he was always the horse to to beat. And he could carry weight too. One of the best horses ever to race at Assiniboia Downs.”
It took Fling seven tries before he hit the Winner's Circle. Ken Hendricks rode Fling in seven of his first nine races and chalked up Fling's first victory on July 20, 1977. It took some time, but once he got his act together, Fling was a bear on the track. Ken handed the reins to his bud Jimmy Anderson, who rode the bay stallion from August 1977 to May 1979. Under Jimmy, horse and rider were a dynamic duo. Together they raced 24 times, sporting a record of 10/7/3, 42% wins and in the top three 83%.
Keep in mind that these races featured the tracks best and back in the late 70s the stakes races had some awfully deep fields. How would you like to race your horse against the likes of Sunraysed, Persian Memories, Taboga, Victor's Pride, Merry's Jay, Federal Ruler, Macale and Turn to Rule on a regular basis?
Fling was routinely top-weighted, often forced to carry 123 to 127 pounds, giving away anywhere from 6 to 15 pounds to his opponents. Thanks to social media I was in contact with Ken and Jimmy to ask about their time with Island Fling.
Ken said he was a "nice horse" with a good temperament. If you've had any experiences around the racetrack, you'll know that the phrase "nice horse" means so much more than just the literal words, especially when they come from someone who knows. Seeing that Ken has won more races at the Downs than any other rider, he knows a "nice horse" when he sees one.
Ken had the misfortune to ride against Fling a lot. He was the regular rider of Merry's Jay and saw a lot of Fling's hind quarters. Interviewed after one losing effort he offered, "They've got to pack 130 pounds on him… that's the only way we'll beat him."
Jimmy Anderson, from his memory of 40 years ago recalled, "What I remember most is after a three-win streak, I worked him a half in 48 flat. Coming off the track, Victor's Pride's trainer Brian "Hutch" Hutcheon asked about the work. Hutch said 'good, I'll beat him this time.' He did beat us, and I never worked him fast again. Next time out, we beat Victor's Pride."
A multiple stakes-winner, Island Fling was a class act who did his best racing late in the season. Two premier races for older horses run at the Downs are the Gold Cup and the Speers. Island Fling won the Gold Cup in 1977 and 1979 and lost the 1978 race by a head to Ken Hendricks on Merry's Jay. He also won the Speers in 1977 and 1978 and finished second in 1979 to Scarlet Rich, on a slow cuppy track he couldn't get a hold of.
Island Fling holds the Downs track record for 1 3/8-miles, which he set in 1977. In 1978 he twice recorded track records for 7 furlongs and in 1979 he bested the track record for 1 1/16-miles. From 1977 to 1979 he was voted the HBPA's Top Older Horse.
Following the 1979 season Island Fling was retired to stud duties. You just know there were those that weren't sad when he retired. Their chance at getting a bigger part of the purse improved with Fling gone.
Would there ever have been a K5 Stable, if Fling's career had not been a smashing success? He retired with an incredible record of 30-22-16 from 111 starts for earnings of $207,973 US. They don’t make horses like that anymore.
He would have made a great foundation for any stable.
And a "nice horse!"