by Bob Gates
The 2021 season gets underway on Monday, May 24. This will be the second year of the pandemic "No Fans in the Stands" season of racing. Sure, it's not what everyone wants, but it beats the blazes out of seeing the local racing scene fade into obscurity.
I ain't going to lie, I miss normal. For me, live racing is where it's at, right there on the tarmac in the shade of the 63-year-old grandstand. I can't wait to see the fans, my racetrack friends and our good neighbours from the good old "Excited" States back asap.
Covid has given us a glimpse of what it would be like without racing at the Downs and frankly I don't much care for what I've seen. I want the "old days" back and the sooner the better. There are no words to adequately describe the efforts of Harvey Warner and Darren Dunn's team to keep horse racing going at Assiniboia Downs.
Everyone's hard work and dedication resulted in last year's $63,264,000 record handle. It was the largest single season handle since 1981, when $53,394,913 was wagered. The 2021 meet features purse increases across the board. Want further proof of the Downs' success? Consider the Monday, May 3, 2021 edition of the Winnipeg Free Press.
The Winnipeg Jets were in the midst of a drive to stay in the hunt for a playoff berth. The Kentucky Derby returned to its rightful spot of the first Saturday in May, with the Run for the Roses going postward on May 1. So what held down the front page of the Free Press' sports section on May 3? Would you believe a full-page story complete with photos of our own Assiniboia Downs 2021 racing season. That, my friends, says it all!
The team led by Harvey and Darren can't do it alone! In the 1970s Joni Mitchell penned the tune "Big Yellow Taxi" which contains the thought-provoking line: "Don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you've got till it's gone."
Let’s pause for a minute and think about how lucky we are.
Have we taken the Downs for granted? I know I have. Currently the Downs is shuttered in accordance with the latest round of health restrictions, so online wagering is what we have. Let's hope dining and the VLTs will return at the end of the month. When the Downs opens the doors again, how about we all lend our support in whatever way we can. Wouldn't it be nice to once again spend a gorgeous summer evening at the races?
As has become our custom, how about a trip down memory lane? Here are some milestones and memories from Manitoba's horse racing history:
1946 - 75 years ago: September 6 saw Polo Park play host to Hollywood comedians Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. The feature race on the Friday night card was the Abbott and Costello Handicap. Following the running of the race, the pair were on hand to present floral decorations to the winner of the race, Leo's Lady, with Emil Roy in the saddle.
1956 - 65 years ago: On July 4, Polo Park Racetrack conducted its final day of racing. With R. J. Speers' death in 1955 the drive to get a new racetrack off the ground stalled. His estate was unable to carry on with the business scheme that would return racing to Winnipeg. When Polo closed its doors, it was a forgone conclusion that there would be no racing in Winnipeg in 1957.
1971 - 50 years ago: The current record daily double payout at the Downs was set on July 23 when Royal Jerry and Seek the Glory (6-10) paid $4,235.50. This "bombs away" payout fell short of the all-time Canadian record however, which was set at Whittier Park on June 9, 1942. On that day the combination of Pagan Royal and Mesmerist (10-4) paid $4,835.55.
Ken Hendricks rode Windsor Moon to victory in the Gold Cup. It was Hank's first win in the Downs classic. In the years that followed, Hendricks would add six more victories for a total of seven wins in the Gold Cup, a jockey record that still stands.
1976 - 45 years ago: On June 23, 22-year-old jockey Jim Sorenson established a Downs record for most wins on a single card, when he rode seven winners on the Wednesday night nine-race program.
1981 - 40 years ago: Jockey Jimmy Anderson won his 725th race to overtake Bobby Stewart as the Downs all-time winning jockey, a record he would hold until later in the 1980s when Hendricks took the lead. Hendricks, who still holds the title, would finish his career in 2008 with 1,666 wins at the Portage Avenue oval.
2001 - 20 years ago: Trainer Gary Danelson chalked up win 880 at the Downs, overtaking the late, great trainer Don Gray, who amassed 879 wins before he passed away on Christmas Day 1993. Danelson still holds the title of all-time leading trainer with 1,234 career wins at the Downs.
It seems like each year there are fewer of us to enjoy the upcoming season. This spring we bid a sad farewell to jockey Todd Kabel, owner/breeder Clarence Marzolf and brother of 6-time Downs leading jockey Bobby Stewart, Wayne "Boone" Stewart.
I would be remiss if I didn't remind all of us that the first race of the season bears the name of Don Gray. This year is the 28th running of the Don Gray Memorial.
Opening day, sorry but once again with empty stands, is Monday, May 24, 2021. Post time is 7:30 p.m. That's all I have for you this week my friends. Let’s all look forward to a brighter Covid-free future and be thankful for what we have.
Spring has sprung, and hope along with it!