by Bob Gates
What's the wackiest injury that resulted in a jockey cancelling his mounts for the day? There aren't any records on the subject, but I think I've got a good one.
On June 24, 1981 Larry Bird booked-off his mounts because he had sliced his finger while filleting fish. Yep that's Larry! “Birdie” was known for his love of fishing, hunting and of course riding thoroughbreds.
Born in Madelia, Minnesota on October 25, 1946 Bird was bred to be a jockey. He was raised on a farm and had horses all around him while he was growing up. Actually, that's what made Bird a great prospect for being a jockey, he didn’t grow up. As a youth, he was barely over five feet tall and tipped the scales at 100 pounds.
Bird got his start riding his father's thoroughbreds at local county fairs. His first win at a recognized track came on September 7, 1964 aboard Vancel at Mitchell, Nebraska. His maiden win at the Downs would have to wait until June 9, 1967 when he rode Jim Benjamin's Fleet Cap to victory in the final race of the day. By the way, Fleet Cap paid a handsome $20 to win. This was the beginning of what was to be a 30-year career at Assiniboia Downs.
-- Won the Downs leading rider crown in 1973 with 48 wins.
-- On May 24, 1981 won the first five races on the card (Sugar Pine Airies, Chas Ogle, Abel Bond, Little Mr. T and Bee Lucky).
-- Won the Gold Cup in 1983 aboard Secret Cipher and the R. J. Speers twice, on Turn to Rule (1976) and Nifty (1986).
-- On June 28, 1992 won his 1,000th race aboard Egyptian Jewel. He is one of only seven jockeys to score more than 1,000 victories at the Downs (Ken Hendricks - 1666, Tim Gardiner - 1458, Tom Adkins - 1318, Frank Licata - 1292, Rohan Singh - 1281, Jacques DesAutels - 1247, Larry 1191).
-- Won the 1993 Manitoba Derby on Royal Frolic, the first Manitoba Bred to win the Derby at the Downs since Merry's Jay in 1976.
-- Retired after the 1997 season racking up 1,191 trips to the winner's circle. His win total puts him in 7th place on the Downs all-time leading jockey board. A position that's not likely to change any time soon as no one else in the top 20 is actively riding at the Downs.
The Manitoba Derby win on Royal Frolic was the highlight of Bird’s career, but here are a couple of obscure, but special memories.
On September 6, 1981 Bird got the mount on Gordie Marsh's Drumbuie -- Now there's a horse that a lot of you won't remember. The race was for $2,000 claimers going 1 1/8-miles. Larry had Drumbuie out of the gate first and never looked back. The track was dreadful that day as the first few races really churned up the mud, but the further Drumbuie ran the more he frolicked in the sloppy going.
All of his combatants were sure Drumbuie would come back to the pack, but they were wrong. At the ¾-pole Bird had opened 8-length lead, and by the time they reached the top of the stretch the margin had increased to 15 lengths. At the finish line Drumbuie and Bird were 23 lengths ahead of the field. You would have to do some digging to find a larger margin of victory at the Downs.
The other gem occurred on July 22, 1986. Bird was aboard Jim and Hazel Wright's We're Not Sure. The Brian Palaniuk trained gelding was coupled with stablemate Who You Gonna Call. The pair ran as the 1 (We're Not Sure) and 1A (Who You Gonna Call) entry. As luck would have it the entry hooked up at the top of the stretch with Who You Gonna Call on the lead. What followed was comical.
Then track announcer, Ken Miller, got the call that men in his profession only dream about. A stretch duel with two horses whose names really played-off each other. Here's a transcript of Ken's call:
They’re at the top of the stretch!
With the lead is Who You Gonna Call.
On the inside Swinger’s Ruckus is second.
We’re Not Sure is closing ground third.
Who You Gonna Call, We’re Not Sure, Swinger’s Ruckus at the rail.
Who You Gonna Call, We’re Not Sure.
We’re Not Sure, Who You Gonna Call.
It’s the one-entry, the one – two…
We’re Not Sure?!
Miller acknowledged that at first his call was innocent, but once he realized what he had, the fun began. This race made blooper tapes all over North America, including the George Michaels Sports Machine which was huge in the 1980s. I also understand the footage was played on Johnny Carson.
Last fall, when I visited with Bird and his bride of nearly 50 years, Sandra, he brought out something that was given to him by Jim and Hazel Wright. It was a classy metallic gold card that read: Assiniboia Downs, Honourary Life Member, Larry Bird.
I've never seen another like it. I'm not sure what privileges go with the card, but that wasn't important to Bird, he was just proud to own this treasure (please see photo).
Speaking of Sandra (nee Davidson), how about these two love "Birds" coming up on 50 years of marriage? This is no easy task at the best of times, and I can’t imagine how much tougher it is when you throw in the trials and tribulations that can befall a couple living the "racetrack" life.
They say the meeting of your soul mate is a matter of timing and their union was a classic example. A lot has been said of Bird’s love of the great outdoors and horses, but he is a devoted family man. The couple have two daughters, Janice and Jesse.
To no one’s surprise Sandra's father, Ed Davidson, owned racehorses. One that comes to mind is Apiarian who ran in the 1970 Manitoba Centennial Derby. This was the Derby hosted by Jack Hardy with special guests, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth ll and members of her family.
Apiarian was no threat to upset the favoured Fanfreluche, but that year it was an honour just to have a horse in the race. It would be a couple of years before Sandra married Larry, so Bobby Bray got the call on the Harold Bieber trained gelding.
With virtually no chance of winning the race, the decision was made to get out front early. The special viewing stand erected for the Derby was located just passed the finish line. True to the plan when they went by Her Majesty, Apiarian was on the lead with Pool to Market in second with Fanfreluche biding her time in third. Ed Davidson's humble steed gave the lady from England a quick bow and continued on his way.
He held the lead to the ½-mile pole, but that was all she wrote. Apiarian's race was over. He quickly slowed to a leisurely pace and was eased. This Derby was special, and the Davidsons were overjoyed to have Apiarian in the race. Besides they also had themselves a souvenir cooler blanket that all entrants received.
These days, the Birds are happily retired and living in the family home in Rosser. Let's leave the final words to Assiniboia Downs' patriarch, the late Albert Edward Blake who was a big fan of Birdie. Blake, who like to say things in a simple way, said that Larry and Sandra were good people…
You are so right sir, and they still are!