by Bob Gates
Life in Saskatoon grew to be a bore and at times even a nightmare for young Joan Phipps. School work couldn’t hold a candle to competing in the Saskatoon-Regina-Prince Albert light horse show circuit where she rode jumpers and barrel raced. Horses became Joan's escape and her passion.
Still shy of her 16th birthday, she dropped out of school. The escape she sought came in the form of her two best friends, Karen Chysyk and Pat Hosie.
Karen Chysyk? Does the name ring any bells? Well Chysyk would eventually marry jockey Ken "Hank" Hendricks and go on to do well for herself as a trainer years later, but that's a story for another day.
I caught up with Karen via Facebook, who told this story:
"Joan and I grew up together and for eight years we went to the same school. I consider her family, she's like my sister. We both rode and loved horses. One day we decided to skip school and go riding. Of course, we got caught. Both of us missing at the same time was a sure give-away.
“One day in 1971, Joan, myself and Pat Hosie decided it was time to move on with life. Pat's father had a dealership and told her she could go pick out a truck. Well he wouldn't let us have the brand new yellow one we picked out, so we ended up with an old green farm truck. None of us were all that happy with our home lives, so we pointed the truck east and headed to Winnipeg.
“Joan is one of the most kind, loving people I have ever known. A great rider who could ride with the best of them anywhere and well respected by the other riders. She never had it easy, but made it look easy."
When Phipps arrived at the Downs in early 1971, she walked hots and worked the brush for Downs patriarch, Bert Blake. However, Blake was reluctant to put Joan on a horse, something she wanted in the worst way. Luckily, she crossed paths with trainer Carl Anderson, who was prepared to let the young miss gallop in the mornings.
From the time Carl gave Joan her first leg up, he knew she was a rider. Joan's first gallop came aboard a mare named Pip's Secret, but it was another mare, Channing, that was going to be important to her future.
Her "big-break" moment came when Anderson made Channing available for Phipps to ride in the 1971 Powder Puff Derby. The Powder Puff was a "no wagering" exhibition race for female riders. The 1971 race saw her and friend Karen Chysyk compete against four other female riders.
Phipps aboard Channing and Chysyk on Polly Note both made spirited late charges at the leaders in the five-furlong race. Phipps and her mount came up a bit short and settled for the place position as Chysyk got to the wire first. Joan learned something about herself that day, finishing second was not for her.
By the time Joan got into the jockey business in 1972 her male counterparts were more accepting of female saddlesmiths than say when Barbara Jo Rubin started riding. The old boys club was coming around, but cat calls from older male race patrons were an issue for jockeys wearing ponytails. In those early years the female "jocks room” consisted of a change room with a table and a sink. No glamour here!
On July 7, 1972, 17-year-old Joan rode Thistle Dawn to victory in the first race. It was her first win on a recognized racetrack and backers were rewarded $29.70, $12.10 and $8.50 across the board. Joan would ride in three complete seasons at the Downs. In 1973 she rode 39 winners and finished fourth in the jockey standings. In 1975 she had 34 wins and finished fifth and in 1977 she had 59 victories and ranked ninth.
In what was to be her final year of riding at the Downs 1977, Phipps connected with a Tommy Dodds filly and a good one at that. Tenacity was her name and this gal, like Joan, loved to win. God knows Joan was exceptional on fillies and mares. In October the combination of Tenacity and Joan tied Flag the Trayne for most wins in a season when they notched their seventh win in 13 starts.
In 1978 injuries took their toll. Knee surgery in February took longer to heal and would become Joan's Waterloo. Assiniboia Downs would only see the Saskatoon Sweetheart for a handful of races in an injury-shortened 1978 season.
Need an informed opinion about a jockey, especially one that raced in Winnipeg in the 1970s? You go to the best, Ken Hendricks, who won the Downs leading rider title in 1974 and 75 and won more career races (1,666) than anybody else at the Downs. On Joan, Hank offered:
"She was the best girl rider to ever ride at the Downs. She was as good as anyone I have seen, great hands and a quiet seat. Everyone in the room liked Joan."
Next up trainer, Tom Dodds, another man who knew his way around the Downs with five leading trainer titles (1988, 89, 90, 92 and 93) and record holder for most wins in a season with 78 wins in 1990. Tommy had this to say:
"Joanie rode quite a few for me. Hutch was her agent and she was a great rider. She won four in a row on Idle Luke, who was a cheap claimer. Every time they won she had to carry more weight. The last time she won they carried 125 pounds and Joanie weighed maybe 105. We could hardly cram enough weight in her lead pad. We joked that if we ran him again we would have to put rocks in her pockets. Before she rode, I remember signing her up for the boys’ steer riding at the Selkirk rodeo. She was a gutsy little thing!"
Joan Phipps Achievements
-- 1973 -- First woman to ride in a Canadian Triple Crown event. Joan rode Singing Spirit in the Breeders' Stakes.
-- 1973 -- Leading apprentice in Manitoba and Saskatchewan and Canada's second-leading apprentice.
-- 1976 -- Competes in the Women's World Jockey Championship Series and takes home the $1,000 first place prize. A feat she would repeat in 1977.
-- 1977 -- First female jockey to ride in the Manitoba Derby when she rode Drum Echo.
-- 1985 -- Joan became the first female steward in Canada.
-- 1996 -- Inducted into the Saskatoon Sports Hall of Fame.
-- 2017 -- Inducted into the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame.
Joan's riding career was injury-restricted to a decade. Racing injuries gutted Joan in the cruelest of ways. It took her away from her love of the horses and the lifestyle that accompanies thoroughbred horse racing.
She officially ended her riding career in 1982. She retired from the sport in 1988.
This week, on August 24, 2019, Joan will celebrate the official age of retirement as she turns 65. Let’s all send birthday greetings to our Downs Darling. Wishing you nothing but the best Joan…
From all your friends at Assiniboia Downs!