by Bob Gates
It’s been 40 years since Overskate and Robin Platts spanked five innocent foes in 30th running of the Manitoba Derby on September 9, 1978.
Going into the Derby, Overskate was considered the best 3-year-old in Canada. He was voted the best 2-year-old in Canada and was certain to be the overwhelming favourite in our Derby coming off a 9-length win in the Prince of Wales Stakes. This, after he was upset in the June 24 Queen's Plate where he finished a disappointing second behind o Regal Embrace, a horse he defeated twice in his subsequent races.
How did this talented little colt find his way to the Manitoba Derby? The Stafford Farms' colt needed a race between the August 26 Prince of Wales Stakes and the September 30 Breeders' Stakes, and the Manitoba Derby fit the bill.
As for his Manitoba Derby romp, if there had been a trial they would have thrown the book at the colt and his rider, Robin Platts. Trainer, Gil Rowntree and owner, Stafford Farms would surely have been named as accomplices or co-conspirators for their roles in the mugging that took place on a warm September afternoon at Assiniboia Downs.
The field of five was grossly overmatched. So how is it that "Skater" didn't win the race by more than the estimated 13 ½-lengths? After all, he set a track record, but sadly that had everything to do with the talented colt and precious little to do with the five "also rans" who were competing for the first-loser position.
Ask any good trainer and they'll tell you that they never want to use any more of their horse than it takes to win the race. In this case however, it was all Robin Platts could do to hold the margin of victory at 13 ½-lengths. The race basically amounted to a brisk work, even though it was a track record winning time. The only danger the 1 to 10 favourite faced on Derby Day was himself.
This race was over shortly after starter, Nick Cizik sent them on their way. Stafford's colt was loping with the greatest of ease on the front without a care in the world. He was all by himself and extending his lead with every effortless stride. Midway through the final turn however, Overskate got to gawking at the old Speers' box cars that were parked at the north end of the track. People had congregated in, on and around the make-shift stalls and Skater was paying more attention to the onlookers than to what he was doing. This caused Platts to take control and remind his charge that it was time to take care of business.
When they straitened out for the stretch drive, the grandstand came into view and this too got Skater's attention. It was just that he was so bored running alone on the front end that he became easily distracted from the task at hand. This go around Platts flicked his stick so his pal could see it and get his mind back on the race once again.
After crossing the finish line, it should have been an easy gallop down the backside to cool out the colt, but Platts' work had only just begun. Overskate was so fresh and having such a good time that it took everything Platts had to pull him up and get him back to the winner's enclosure for the photo and victory celebrations.
Who knew? 1978 Manitoba Derby victor Overskate and his crew of jockey Robin Platts, trainer Gil Rowntree and owner, the man behind Stafford Farm, Jack Stafford, are all Hall of Famers. Overskate, Platts and Rowntree were inducted in 1997 and Stafford in 1982. They were a special group!
The 1978 win was Jack Stafford's first and only win in the Manitoba Derby. He had travelled to the Downs with Queen's Plate winners Royal Chocolate and Amber Herod in 1973 and 1974, but was denied the big prize. At one time Stafford lived and worked in our fair city. He was a good friend of the Downs and had a high regard for Winnipeg.
Trainer Gil Rowntree had a nice-looking resume which featured a Sovereign Award as Canada's outstanding trainer in 1975 and four Queen's Plate victories. Rowntree worked for Jack Stafford from 1967 until Stafford's death in 1981.
Robin Platts said that "Mighty Moe" (his name for Overskate) was the best horse he ever rode. Overskate was special and that's quite a compliment coming from a man who rode in more than 20,000 races, winning over 3,000 of them and earning $40 million in purses. Platts won the Queen's Plate four times, joining co-record holders Sandy Hawley and the late Avelino Gomez.
In addition, Platts won the second leg of Canada's Triple Crown, the Prince of Wales Stakes, three times, and the third jewel of the Crown, the Breeders' Stakes, four times. He also won the Sovereign Award for Outstanding Jockey in 1979 and the Avelino Gomez Award in 1992 for his contributions to the sport in Canada.
All of Overskate’s connections had great credentials, but the real star of the 1978 Manitoba Derby was Overskate himself, a multiple graded stakes-winning son of Nodouble out of Overstate by Speak John. Hi dam, Overstate, was well-bred with both Princequillo and Man O' War blood running through her veins.
No one could challenge Overskate's work ethic or talent. From July 16, his first race after the June 24 Queen's Plate, to the September 30 Breeders’ Stakes, he ran and won six times on three different tracks, by a combined margin of 31 lengths, broke two track records (one on the dirt and one on the turf) and travelled 5,000 km in the process.
How's this for a list of career honours?
- Sovereign Award 1977 Champion 2-Year-Old Colt
- Sovereign Award 1978 Champion 3-Year-Old Colt
- Sovereign Award 1978 Champion Grass horse
- Sovereign Award 1978 Horse of the Year
- Sovereign Award 1979 Champion Older Horse
- Sovereign Award 1979 Champion Grass Horse
- Sovereign Award 1979 Horse of the Year
- Sovereign Award 1980 Champion Older Horse
- Sovereign Award 1980 Champion Grass Horse
Overskate may have been diminutive in stature at only 950 pounds, small for a thoroughbred, but no one would dare challenge the size of his heart or his will to win. He hated to lose, but that's ok, because that didn’t happen much, and on September 9, 1978…
He provided us with the most impressive Manitoba Derby win ever seen at Assiniboia Downs.
Robin Platts is 69 years young and has been married to his bride, Debbie for 45 years. The couple live in Schomberg, just north of Toronto, Ontario. My thanks to Robin and his son Kris for their valuable contributions to the story of Overskate's record-setting win in the 1978 Manitoba Derby.