by Bob Gates
In a little more than two weeks the Manitoba Jockey Club will present the historic 75th running of the $125,000 Manitoba Derby.
Historic? Yes! There is something special about the phrase the “75th Running.” A possible topper to our upcoming milestone Derby will come when the race celebrates its Centenary in 2048. Some of us no doubt won’t be here for that one, but most of us were around to mark other noteworthy editions of the race.
This time around we remember the July 15, 1973, 25th running of the $100,000 Manitoba Derby that took place five decades ago. Where does the time go?
The 25th running featured, what was at the time, the largest purse ever offered for our Derby. In the 1970s the Derby was known as “The Run for the Tartan” and believe it or not, the $100,000 purse made the race the second-richest thoroughbred horse race in Canada.
At the end of 1971 there were 316 Canadian-breds nominated for the 1973 Derby. Come the end of 1972 that number shrunk to 112 colts, geldings and fillies. By May 1973, the number of eligible 3-year-olds was reduced to 68. When July rolled around the field was expected to have 11 Canadian-bred starters for the 9-furlong “Run for the Tartan.”
Prior to the running of the Queen’s Plate on June 30,1973 the odds-on favourite for the Manitoba Derby was Jean-Louis Levesque’s marvelous filly La Prevoyante. As a 2-year-old La Prevoyante was undefeated, sporting a record of 12 consecutive wins. The graded stakes-placed filly’s wins were split evenly, with six in Canada and six in the United States for earnings totalling $417,109.
The Levesque filly was Canada’s Horse of the Year in 1972, as well as runner-up to Secretariat for Horse of the Year honours in the US. Equine sex-discrimination? La Prevoyante had her supporters who felt that the filly’s record was more impressive than Secretariat’s as a 2-year-old colt.
In the early months of 1973 it looked like the Manitoba Derby was La Prevoyante’s for the taking.
As a 3-year-old, the bay filly started to show signs that she may be mortal after all. Prior to the Queen’s Plate she finished third in the Canadian Oaks for fillies and mares. The Plate was going to be her third race in two weeks, and many felt she had yet to show that could best the boys going a distance.
Woodbine’s track was “off” on the day of the Plate and Canada’s sweetheart found the racing surface rated as “Slow” tough slogging. The filly ran on the front end most of the way and struggled for the lead which she never got. When she hit the final turn, she was done and faded badly. It wasn’t the filly’s best race, not by a long shot. The Manitoba Derby was no longer in her future.
“Mr. Starr (her trainer) did not want to ship La Prevoyante to Winnipeg for the Derby because of her poor showing in the Plate. She tired in the stretch which was unusual for her. In fact, since the beginning of 1973 she was a different horse from when she was a 2-year-old. She was still great, but not the same, but it never took away from the love we had for her.” -- Pierre-Louis Levesque
With La Prevoyante out of the Derby, Manitoba’s premier race of the year was a wide-open affair. Of the 11 Canadian-breds who made up the Derby field, eight were from Ontario, two from Alberta and only one from Manitoba. The Derby participants also featured seven horses who ran in the Queen’s Plate, including the surprise Plate $48.10 winner, Royal Chocolate, 4th place finisher, Albert the Consort, 5th place, Singing Spirit, and 6th place Fabiusand, with Queen’s Splendor, Zaca Spirit and Impressive Lady finishing 11th, 12th and 15th respectively.
On Derby day July 15, 1973, Downs bettors made the lone filly in the race, Impressive Lady the favourite, the Stafford Farm entry of Royal Chocolate and Tara Road second choice, Albert the Consort the third choice with Zaca Spirit being the 4th pick overall. You have to wonder how many fans today could pick out the winner of the 1973 Derby just from looking at the race program.
Zaca Spirit went directly to the front, “maintained a clear lead” and “was never in any danger.” The gate to wire “surprise” winner for owner George Frostad’s Bo-Teek Farm reeled off fractions of 22 3/5, :47, 1:11 1/5, 1:36 3/5, and finished in 1:49 2/5. The hard charging Queen’s Plate champion, Royal Chocolate finished three lengths back in second and the favoured filly, Impressive Lady was third.
Zaca Spirit paid a tidy $15.20, 5.60 and 3.30 across the board. The race saw four local riders getting mounts in the Derby: Roger Jensen (4th Wing Span), Bobbie Dimma (5th Tara Road), Larry Bird (6th Albert the Consort) and Dean Kutz (10th Queen’s Splendor).
Zaca Spirit’s trainer Carl “Chappie” Chapman had some history with Assiniboia Downs. Chapman came to the Downs in 1958 with two carloads of horses to try out the new track in the west. The 1973 Derby win was Chapman’s first $100,000 winner.
One Manitoban left the track a particularly happy camper that day. Donna Stokes was the only Manitoban to have her ticket drawn in the Manitoba Golden Sweepstakes Lottery that was based on the outcome of the Derby. In the Lottery she was paired with the Derby winner, Zaca Spirit and took home the $100,000 grand prize.
Five decades ago, Zaca Spirit thrilled a crowd of 8,543 by winning the 25th running of the $100,000 Manitoba Derby. On August 7, 2023, who will be the hero of the day when the 75th edition of the Manitoba Derby goes to post?
On August 7th let’s all meet track side on the tarmac and experience firsthand, the history-making 75th Derby run.