by Bob Gates
The past is behind, learn from it.
The future is ahead, prepare for it.
The present is here, live it.
-– Thomas S. Monson
It’s been three and a half months since starter Derek Corbel sent the first field of horses on there way to kick-off the Downs 2023 live thoroughbred race season. With only three race days left, it was time to seek out that short, rotund, balding senior, you know the one who likes to sit in the last row of benches nearest the grandstand.
Actually the old man wasn’t hard to find. This time around he saw me coming and was quick to initiate what has become our year-end review.
“I thought I’d run into you,” he grumbled. “Seems like the only time you want to chat is when the season is drawing to a close.”
“Well, I guess you’re on to me. What have you got for us this year?”
“How about a few names from 60 years ago?” he quipped.
“That’s a long time ago!” I cautioned him.
“I know, but if we don’t talk about them, they’ll fade away forever. Recently, a friend reminded me that the mind might forget, but the heart does not. Why don’t we ask the people who follow the history blog how many of these horses they remember, and they’re not all handicap runners?”
Post Cibos Four C’s Sandy Jim
Springs Best Falcon Lake Mr. Question
Precambrian Hal S. Mid Strome
Last Hour Count Meridian Tiny Will
Phantom’s Flower Witchspell Wind Shadows
On the jockey side of the ledger how about:
Ray Correa Norm Dubois
Kelly Keyworth Gene Pederson
Fred Tobacco Jimmy Reil
Boyd Morris Charlie Steck
Tak Inouye Ken Clemes
I’m sure you’ve noticed all the familiar leading jockey names like Bobby Stewart, Dickie Armstrong, Tommy Stadnyk and Frank Barroby have all been left off the list.
This seemed like as good a place as any to ask him how he felt about the future of racing. He paused for a moment and choosing his words carefully he said:
“I feel good about it. There are a couple of signs that give me hope. Every Manitoba Derby visitor to the Downs talks about how well they are treated at Assiniboia Downs, and this comes from horsemen and guests of the Downs. I like the term guests and not fans or patrons. So you know the Downs is doing something right.”
Thing of it is, I knew he was right. I too had heard these comments and not just from the owners who left town with a big cheque. This year’s Derby was another example of the feedback that proves the Downs is on the right track.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Norm Tremblay one of the owners of pre-race Derby favourite Heroic Move. We got into a discussion about another horse of his, Sky Promise, winner of the 2018 Manitoba Derby. Norm pointed to the Derby program which featured the 4th running of the Escape Clause Stakes. He thought it was great that the Downs saw fit to honour a special horse.
He went on to explain that back in 2018 Sky Promise not only won the Manitoba Derby, but he also won the Canadian Derby and the B.C. Derby. Those three races have since been recognized as forming the Western Canadian Triple Crown, which carries a $100,000 bonus should one horse win all three races.
Norm said his horse’s success met with no special accolades and theorized that had Assiniboia Downs been Sky Promise’s home track, the Downs would have put up a bronze statue. An exaggeration to be se sure, but his point was well-taken. The Downs does things right!
The old man continued to speak about his hope for the future. “Let’s talk about passion for a minute. Trainer Mike Nault has three young ladies who groom his horses. Sisters Olive and Charlotte Johnston, and their friend Brittany Bergen. They give me hope! It’s been some time since I’ve seen that degree of passion. These ladies are goners, there isn’t a recovery program on this planet that could save them. They have a bad case of horse-fever and it’s a joy to behold.”
I like living a life where a horse matters.
-- Cowboy Poet Baxter Black
I thanked the old guy and before moving on, asked if he has any closing thoughts. He offered:
“Earlier in the year I heard you explain that for you, horse racing was ‘hoofprints and footprints.’ I like that, but for me, I’d describe racing as more of a feeling. I like how it feels to be out at the Downs… it feels like home.”
“Nicely put!” Michael Magee once explained that there was something almost sacred about horse racing and I decided it was time to leave the old man be.
As I walked away, my thoughts turned to the future. The competition for the gambling/entertainment dollar has turned into a street fight. Horse racing has in its mix a myriad of variables, not the least of which includes Mother Nature, and you can’t mess with her. What am I trying to say?
There is no shortage of challenges that the Downs faces each and every season. Deal with one and another pops-up, one you never even fathomed, but that’s what the Downs team does as a matter of course. The team that operates “The “Little Track That Could” does an exceptional job, one that deserves our support and makes us proud.
“Attendance is up, the Manitoba Derby set records and per-race wagering has grown about 10% per cent year-over-year, which Dunn says is a big number that’s hard to do.” - Mike McIntyre, Winnipeg Free Press, September 8, 2023
As we wind down the history blog for another year how about a couple of random thoughts?
For those of you who long for the old days, we must remember it was a different time. No doubt there were more racetrackers in the sport solely because they loved the life. Nowadays there a fewer who can afford to ignore the economics of the sport. We have to ask ourselves, is it fair to view today’s horse racing through a lens that is more than a half-century old?
I firmly believe we must embrace and remember the past, but be careful not live in it. When it comes right down to it all we have is the present, the here and the now. The future is promised to no one. We should prepare for it and never lose hope, because the future is where hope lives.
Learn from yesterday,
Live for today,
Hope for tomorrow.
-– Albert Einstein
This is my final blog story for the 2023 live racing season. Starting next week, The Inside Track newsletter will feature “The Best of Bob” where we’ll take another look at some of our favourite stories from previous years.
Please remember, there’s always plenty to do at the Downs during the off-season. Keep a close eye on your weekly Inside Track newsletter, so you won’t miss out on anything. The Downs has VLT action, simulcast wagering and dining specials, where you are treated to one of the best dining views in all of Winnipeg.
Before you know it, it will be spring time and the 2024 live thoroughbred horse racing season will be upon us again.
I cannot thank you enough for reading this history blog and…
We’ll see you at the track!
My sincere thanks to track photographer, Jason Halstead for all his great photos and this week’s are the best yet!