by Bob Gates
Over the years the Downs has played host to all sorts of dignitaries, from professional athletes to royalty, but some of the most popular guests have been heroes from the Sport of Kings. There have been many, but none more special than racing legends Johnny Longden, Eddie Arcaro and Willie Shoemaker.
On June 19, 1961 John Eric Longden, the than "world's leading jockey" made a special race presentation to the winner of the "Longden Purse" on, of course, "Johnny Longden Day" at Assiniboia Downs. The title of Honorary Steward as well as Honorary Citizen of Winnipeg was bestowed on the man who recorded more victories than any other jockey in the sport. At the time of his visit to the Downs he had won more than 5,500 races!
Longden's career spanned 39 years from 1927 until his last ride in 1966. His accomplishments were many and during the 1930s he rode locally at Whittier and Polo Park.
Longden was born in England on February 15, 1907 and came to Canada with his mom in 1912 where they were to meet up with his dad. John and his mother travelled by train to Southampton where they were to board ship to sail to New York City. However, in a strange, but fortunate twist of fate their train was late and they missed their scheduled voyage to America aboard a ship you may have heard of - the Titanic!
Stellar record doesn't begin to describe Longden's feats on the track. In 1966 he hung up his tack having amassed 6,032 wins - which was more than any other jock in the history of thoroughbred racing. In 1943 he won the American Triple Crown on Count Fleet. He ended up with two Kentucky Derbys (1943, 1969), two Preakness Stakes (1943, 1969) and one win in the Belmont (1943). In case you're wondering his mount in 1969 Triple Crown races was Canada's Majestic Prince.
At the 1961 Kentucky Derby, he was asked which race track was the toughest he ever rode. His answer? Winnipeg's Whittier Park! He said that the short first turn on the 5/8 mile track was almost worth a rider's life.
Longden retired from racing at the age of 59 and passed on February 14, 2003, he was 96.
Next up is George Edward Arcaro. Eddie or "Banana Nose" as he was known to the boys in the "room" made his trip to Winnipeg on June 18, 1962. At that time Eddie was a goodwill ambassador for the American Totalisator Company.
"Eddie Arcaro Day" at the Downs featured the "Eddie Arcaro Handicap." The winner of the race was Patty Kem who was ridden by Bobby Stewart. Young, up and comer, Stewart was thrilled to meet and be recognized in the winner's circle by a real legend and one he greatly admired.
At the time of his visit to our westend oval 46-year-old Arcaro had retired from the sport he loved with 4,779 wins. Eddie was born in Ohio an February 19, 1916, began riding in 1932 and retired following an incredible 30 year career. Once he was finished with racing he worked as a television racing commentator for CBS and ABC.
There isn't enough room in this blog to detail all of Arcaro's racing awards and accolades. He piloted Whirlaway and Citation to the American Triple Crown in 1941 and 1948. In total he won an amazing five Kentucky Derbys , six Preakness Stakes and six Belmont Stakes.
The best horse he ever rode? Arcaro selected Citation as his "go to" horse. Eddie passed at the age of 81 on November 14, 1997.
Last, but not least is none other than William Lee Shoemaker. We had the pleasure of seeing "Shoe" and two occasions at the Downs. Unlike Johnny and Eddie, Willie actually rode horses on his visits to our track on June 3, 1987 and September 4, 1989.
In 1987 he rode Larry Carter's Reinhold to victory # 8,667. In 1989 Shoe was back for "Classic Day" but this time around he was only able to manage a third place finish. Willie was upstaged by local boy, Brian Bochinski who recorded three wins on what was supposed to be "Shoemaker's Classic Day."
Shoemaker was born in Texas on August 19, 1931 and rode his first winner in 1949. He recorded 8,833 trips to the winner's circle in his 41 years of racing, retiring in 1990 at the age of 59.
It was Shoe who surpassed Johnny Longden's record for most wins by a jock in September 1970. Shoemaker's record would eventually be surpassed by Laffit Pincay Jr. in 1999. The current record is held by Russell Baze who has 12,842 wins. Shoe never won the Triple Crown, but has four Kentucky Derbys, two Preakness Stakes and five Belmonts to his credit. The man they Shoe passed at age 72 on October 12, 2003.
These heroes are gone now and as the decades pass their names are slowly moving down the various leader boards. In terms of most wins Shoe sits in third place behind Laffit Pincay Jr. and Russell Baze, Johnny Longden is in 17th place and Eddie Arcaro is 37th.
A quick scan of the all time leader board (by earnings) has Shoe in 37th place, but Longden and Arcaro's total earnings now aren't enough to make the top 200. I guess with purses being what they are today we shouldn't be surprised.
It's been 50 plus years since Johnny and Eddie were here and believe it or not it's been almost 30 years since we last saw the Shoe. Boy, that just doesn’t seem right does it? Where has all that time gone?
Looking back, haven't we been blessed with visits from the best the turf has to offer?
It's true that records are made to be broken, but no one can take away the memories of Johnny, Eddie and Willie!