by Bob Gates
Jim and Hazel Wright are the ultimate example of one of those husband/wife partnerships in our Assiniboia Downs family. For the better part of 20 years they owned and operated the Downs. When the time came for them to step away, they did what they could to ensure our racetrack was in good hands and ready for the future.
James William Wright was born on October 31, 1922, in Kenora, Ontario and was raised in Winnipeg. Hazel Jean Schollar was a Charleswood lass who was born the same year on May 9. They were married in 1941 and celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary on March 11, 1991. Together they shared a great love of horses and the “Sport of Kings.”
Who Knew? Jim was an astute businessperson, but there was one that got away. In the 1950s, when the fast-food industry was in its infancy, KFC’s Colonel Sanders offered him the KFC Canadian franchise rights for $100,000 and Jim passed. He just couldn’t believe people would go to a little corner store to buy fried chicken and french fries in a box. Ooops!
The September 5, 1974, edition of the Winnipeg Free Press foretold the future of Assiniboia Downs:
“Mr. J. C. Hardy, president and owner of James Enterprises Limited, announced today that an agreement for the sale of the company has been entered into with Mr. J. Wright of Calgary.
“The company owns Assiniboia Downs, which operates both thoroughbred and standardbred racing in Winnipeg. Mr. Hardy said that legal requirements for the sale are expected to be completed shortly, at which time ownership will change hands.”
In the fall of 1974 the future of the Downs looked bright as a group headed by Jim Wright confirmed that it had purchased Assiniboia Downs racetrack for just over $5 million. The sale to Wright and Bory Margolis, the other major shareholder, had been two years in the making.
Relative to the state of the Downs at that time, Wright’s planned renovations and expansion sounded grandiose. Included were the installation of escalators, expansion, remodelling and air conditioning of the clubhouse, as well as concession stands improvements. Wright always wanted Assiniboia Downs to be the Woodbine of Western Canada. Under his leadership, it was an exciting time for the Portage Avenue track.
One of Wright’s major goals was to make sure his patrons have fun and enjoy themselves.
“I care as much about the little old lady who makes a $2 show bet as I do about the guy who puts $200 into the mutuel machines. I want them both to come back”
-- Jim Wright, May 1976
In the early 1980s Wright saw an opportunity to sell the Downs and he took it. He and Hazel longed to get more involved in racing thoroughbreds without having to run the racetrack, or perhaps he saw the dark clouds on the horizon. Surely interest rates exceeding 20%, a recession, and a provincial government determined to get into the gaming business couldn’t help but make the job of running a racetrack more difficult.
It wasn’t long before purchaser Michael Gobuty experienced financial issues that proved insurmountable. Come February 1983, Wright once again owned the Downs, in spite of the challenges that awaited him. However, this time around there were no other investors. The Wrights would go it alone.
By the late 1980s the wear and tear on the running the Downs in challenging times had taken its toll on the aging Wrights. They had done the best they could with the assistance of son, Bob, but knew their time at the helm of Assiniboia Downs was drawing to a close. Ultimately, they sold the track to the not-for-profit Manitoba Jockey Club in the fall of 1993.
Who Knew? In 1991 one of Assiniboia Downs’ claims to fame was that it was the last privately owned track to provide thoroughbred and standardbred racing.
During the Wright’s ownership, Jim’s contributions to racing were acknowledged. In 1983 he was inducted into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame in the builder category. And in 1990 he received a Sovereign Award and was named “Man of the Year” by the Jockey Club of Canada.
Who Knew? The Wrights stable name at the Downs, El Mingo was an amalgamation of the name they used in Alberta, Flamingo, and Wright’s partner, Bory Margolis’ Elmbrook Stable.
The Wrights had many horses occupy the barns of Flamingo and El Mingo stables. How many of these can you recall?
Halo’d Moon Page Me Doll
Icy Welcome Picabit
Mood E Me Sissy Ruckus
No More Foolin Spoil Her
One Night Lover Wily Waltzer
There are many stories about horses owned by the Wrights. Perhaps one of the better-known ones involved a couple of garden-variety claimers, Who You Gonna Call and We’re Not Sure.
In July 1986, the stablemates ran as an entry, remember those, and went head-to-head for most of the stretch drive. The result was a dream come true for track announcer Ken Miller and made all the sports highlight reels. Ken’s call went something like this:
“It’s Who You Gonna Call, We’re Not sure, Who You Gonna Call, We’re Not Sure and at the wire it’s… We’re Not Sure!”
The Wrights had no sooner sold the Downs for a second time when Hazel’s Multiple Sclerosis returned. Originally, she had been diagnosed in 1974. This time the dreadful disease hit her hard and husband Jim became her sole caregiver. Daughter, Lorraine heaped praise on her father for his tireless efforts in caring for the love of his life.
Hazel was an incredible human-being who came from humble beginnings and she was always grateful for what she had, because of that. She was a lady who had little patience for complaining. If she felt Jim complained too much, she wouldn’t drive with him. So there were mornings when they each took their own vehicles to work.
And about cars… On occasion of a milestone birthday, Jim bought his bride a new vehicle. Thing is, Hazel had always wanted a Cadillac and Jim’s present was very nice, but it wasn’t a “Caddy.” Can you see what’s coming? Jim returned the car he purchased and got her a Cadillac.
Talk about being comfortable in your own skin, the Wrights fit in anywhere. They could have breakfast in the track kitchen with the backside folk and dine with the likes of millionaire, racing icon, E. P. Taylor in the evening. Another thing you probably wouldn’t be aware of was that on any given race day, Hazel toured the grandstand restrooms to ensure they met her standards of cleanliness.
Not only did the Wrights do right by the Downs for the 20 years they ran the track, they also helped secure and invest in the future of the west end oval. While the role they played in the sale of the Downs to the Manitoba Jockey Club was essential, there was more.
They were also responsible for the hiring of two crucial long-term employees who are an integral part of the management team that leads the Downs today.
“I started working for Mr. and Mrs. Wright in 1978. They provided me with the opportunity to work in different positions throughout the years and treated me like family. It was amazing to see two people working side-by-side, day-after-day, seven days a week in the sport they truly loved… they were lovely and generous people who I had the utmost respect for, and I always called them Mr. and Mrs. Wright. I will always remember them as my family!”
-- Sharon Gulyas Vice President, Finance & Gaming Assiniboia Downs
“Jim and Hazel were truly a dedicated and committed couple, joined in their support for each other and joined in their incredible passion for horse racing in Manitoba. It was impossible to not respect their work ethic, which inspired me and others to follow suit. They would also take a chance on a well-intended young person and were generous in the responsibility that they bestowed upon that person. I will always remember that and be forever grateful.”
-- Darren Dunn Chief Executive Officer, Assiniboia Downs
In 2008 the Downs honoured the memory of Hazel Wright, by naming a race for Manitoba-bred 3-year-olds fillies in her name. This past July, daughter Dr. Lorraine Wright returned to the Downs to make the trophy presentation to the winner of the 16th running of the race that pays tribute to her mother’s dedication to horse racing in Manitoba.
The Wright children, Lorraine and Bob lost their mother on October 2, 1999, at the age of 77. Their father passed on January 31, 2014, at the age of 91. The Wrights shared an emotional and financial investment in horse racing at Assiniboia Downs. Their greatest desire was for Manitoba thoroughbred racing to do well. The Wrights put their hearts, souls, and whatever else it took to make the Downs the best it could be.
In the only race that really counts, the race of life, Jim and Hazel succeeded, at times against all odds. And as friends of Assiniboia Downs…
We owe them our eternal gratitude!