Not a horse was born that he wouldn’t ride!
Perhaps legendary Downs' trainer, the late Don Gray, described him best when he said:
“He is outstanding on horses that are a little erratic or nervous. He’s always shown ability. He’s a really strong finisher. He really flattens out on a horse. And he’ll ride the rankest horses on the grounds.”
The person Gray was describing was none other than Joe Selyem, but I prefer to call him Joseph. Why? Well, I think he likes Joseph. And it’s not that he would ever say anything to those who call him Joe – because that’s what everyone calls him!
Joseph Nandor Selyem was born in Alag, Hungary on May 3, 1949. In 1956 he and his parents, Louis and Anna, left Hungary to settle in Winnipeg. He learned to ride from his maternal grandfather, Joseph Pocker who was an accomplished horseman.
They moved to a farm in Oakbank, Manitoba in 1964, and that became the home of their modest racing stable known as “Anna Stables.” The farmhouse walls proudly display many family racing photos from Hungary, dating back to the 1920s and 30s.
The Selyem family takes great pride in their Hungarian heritage. This is evident in their choice of names for the horses that made up Anna Stables, such as Lady Alag, Betyar, Danika, Kismiska and Margitsziget.
Over the years, Joseph rode some nice horses, like Northern Spike and Windsor Moon, but mostly he rode the family’s horses which, at times, had trouble finding the Winner’s Circle on a regular basis, but still enough to keep the stable going.
Joseph’s career spanned 20 years, from 1965 to 1984 and saw him win 306 races at theDowns. He wasn’t comfortable singling out people for special mention, he was afraid that he might offend those he left out, but when I pressed him to name a mentor that he admired, two names finally popped out – the late Bobby Stewart; and Frank Barroby.
The most common word associated with Joseph as a rider was “underrated.” Assiniboia Downs’ patriarch the late Bert Blake said that he liked Joe because he always gave his best.
Veteran horseman Romeo Couturier said that, “If you can’t ride Bobby Stewart, you ride Joe Selyem because he’s just as good!”
Selyem rode low in the saddle with a flattened back and this became his distinctive riding style. You could always tell it was Joseph in the irons by how he positioned himself!
Selyem Fast Facts:
- June 5, 1965 – First race of his career, his horse All Shine finished sixth.
- August 2, 1965 – His mount Mid Strome finished second and paid a record setting $242 to place – this is still a record today and one that may never be broken. Mid Strome was a 200 to 1 shot that lost the race by a short neck.
- June 7, 1967 – He broke his “maiden” on Kelsey Dancer.
- July 8, 1972 – He was aboard shipper Gentleman Conn and set a track record time of 1:43 for 1 1/16-miles that would stand for 16 years!
- May 15, 1982 – He rode Valerie Dahle’s Tiger Wave to victory at 33 to 1. I remember the race well. It was early in the meet and Tiger Wave could only go short and his best chance was always early in the meet, so the conditions were perfect. Not to mention that you don’t forget a race when you cash a $680 Quinella ticket! So it’s no great wonder that I was a fan of Joseph’s, but there were lots of races like this one. Joseph had a way of winning on horses that the betting public ignored. You had to pay attention to his mounts, and try to find that diamond in the rough!
- In 1983 he married Ilona and settled in Winnipeg’s west end.
- July 15, 1984 – Last win of his career on Poker Derby, who was also his last ride on August 6, 1984 – he finished third.
It’s hard to explain, but I felt a kinship with the family stable and was always on the lookout for their horses. It was almost always worth the wait! I remember cashing some nice tickets on Csakany and Mr. Bizbee.
Mr. Bizbee was my all-time favourite Selyem steed. He was your basic garden-variety claimer that could go long or short and gave his all every time out. He is the only horse in the history of Assiniboia Downs to win the final race of the season, twice. He won the last race of the meet on August 13, 1973 and then again on September 3, 1975.
Mr. Bizbee’s best year was 1975. From 10 starts, he won three races and finished second four times. After his racing career, he was retired to a riding stable in the Oakbank area. Mr. Bizbeewas one of those horses who just found ways to “get it done.”
Following his retirement, Joseph worked as clerk of the scales and in other capacities around the track. His father, Louis, who died in 2006, was a man that everyone liked and respected. A couple of years ago when his mother and uncle needed help, dutiful son Joseph gave up his job at the Downs, rolled up his sleeves and went to work on the farm.
This year Joseph found time in the morning to work horses at the track and it’s nice to see him riding again!
Joseph didn’t always have the best mount in a race, but he gave his charges the best chance they had to win. Not that anyone keeps records of these kinds of things, but I’ll bet he had more longshot victories than any other jockey at the Downs.
As good a jockey as he was, Joseph Nandor Selyem is a better man. After all, you have to be doing something right when people like Don Gray and Bert Blake sing your praises. But what’s more important, Joseph is a man you want to like.
And we do!