by Bob Gates
Imagine, a blog dedicated to all things historical, and this week we travel all the way back in time to last year's Derby. Murray Duncan and the Estate of Garylle Bruce Stewart's Plentiful won the 69th running of the Manitoba Derby in 2017, and that’s our go-to story. Go figure.
But this isn't just about the worthy 2017 Derby winner and his connections, it’s about a backstory that reads like a fairy tale and proves the age-old adage that sometimes good things happen to nice people.
If you looked only at the Official Equibase stats, trainer Murray Duncan would look like he's only been in the business since 2010, but that couldn't be further from the truth. Duncan's racing career dates back to the early 1960s and runs through to the late 1970s, when he left the game to earn a regular salary and raise a family with his wife, Pat. In the early days, Free Press scribe Elman Guttormson referred to the Carberry native as "youthful Murray Duncan."
Murray’s first thoroughbred, Precambrian, ran his competition ragged in 1961, winning seven of eight starts and finishing second in his last race of the season, though he was stripped of one of his wins through a disqualification. In the year that followed, the 20-year-old Duncan got his trainers licence and his first lifetime win as a trainer on June 25, thanks to Precambrian.
Murray met his future partner, Gary Stewart, in the early 1960s and got to be very good friends with Gary's brother, jockey Bobby Stewart. The latter won a record six leading jockey titles at Assiniboia Downs! Bobby and Murray were tight, and Bobby was in Murray's wedding party when Murray married Pat on April 1, 1967. Are you kidding me? Nope, April Fool's Day! Now there's an anniversary to remember.
Years would pass with Murray and Gary keeping in contact, both before and after Bobby's untimely passing in 1985.
On a cold winter's night in March 2010, Murray and Gary were having one of their regular "catch me up" telephone conversations and decided it was time for them to return to racing. Perhaps, they could pick up a couple of horses and dabble in the sport they loved.
What started off as a dabble ended up with a stable of a half-dozen quality thoroughbreds. It was a small but quality-laden barn. From 2010 to 2016 the long-time horse partners spent more than a $500,000 on horses and it paid off with numerous local stakes wins. The partnership entered horses in the Manitoba Derby in 2011, 2012 and 2013, their best effort being a third by Pleasant Closing in 2012. In 2014 they won the Jockey Club of Canada Award as leading owners in Manitoba, primarily on the strength of their superb multiple stakes-winning champion mare Go Go Lolo. In 2015, the barn once again more than held its own.
And then 2016 happened, which was quite simply a disaster of epic proportions! The barn was only half full and no one was running worth a hoot. The partnership went the entire year without winning a race for themselves. Murray had his worst year ever as a trainer, winning but one race and it was for one of his clients.
Gary and Murray were a good team. They worked well together, but Gary's health suffered mightily that year. It was a difficult time for the Fargo lawyer, who never made it up to Winnipeg to see his horses race. Murray kept in telephone contact with his partner, but those conversations trickled to nothing, as his buddy's health worsened.
The writing was on the wall. Gary had serious problems and he wasn't going to get better. The horses seemed to sense that something was wrong. The atmosphere in the barn changed. Murray missed Gary's counsel and his mere presence in the barn meant more to him than he let on. Nothing was going right, and just when you thought that things couldn’t get worse, they did.
As darkness wrapped its arms around Winnipeg on August 1, 2016, not far away in Fargo, Garylle Bruce Stewart, dear friend of Assiniboia Downs and the eldest son of the late Glen and Melvy Stewart watched his final sunset and passed peacefully.
The sunset was reminiscent of another that took place at the Downs on July 10, 2010. On that day, Gary held a tribute evening to remember brother, Bob. A memorial race was held and when everyone congregated in the winner's circle to award the trophy to the winner, an orange glow from the setting prairie sun spread across the track. The sunsets of 2010 and 2016 will be forever linked.
Garylle Bruce Stewart, 76 lost the good fight on Manitoba Derby Day in 2016. It seemed fitting that he would leave us on the biggest day of racing in the 59-year history of Assiniboia Downs, as Derby Day betting that day topped $1,000,000 for the first time. Garylle Stewart was a class act and went out in style!
The stable took some time off once the 2016 season mercifully came to an end. The decision whether the barn should continue was not an easy one. Gary's daughter, Audrey explained that they would only carry on if Murray was up to it. The family would support Murray in whatever he decided. Gary's death rocked Murray's inner core and left him shaken, but with the support of Audrey and her husband Brian, they soldiered on.
For the 2016-2017 off season there were two key additions to the barn. Three-year-old Plentiful and older mare C J's Flair would form the foundation upon which the barn would make 2017 a year of reclamation. Talk about turning things around, 2017 was the polar opposite of 2016.
C J's Flair won stake race after stake race and Plentiful proved to be a solid three-year-old performer. He had four wins and two seconds from six starts at the Downs in 2017.
In his prep for the Manitoba Derby, the Harry Jeffrey, Plentiful had a rough trip. The race was a street fight. He got slammed around early and never fully recovered but finished a respectful second nonetheless.
The Manitoba Derby was only 16 days later, but there was some unfinished business for the Stewart family. Audrey and Brian sponsored a race to honour her father. Friends and family gathered in the Terrace Dining Room on July 22, 2017 to pay tribute to Garylle Bruce Stewart.
This night was still very fresh in everyone's mind when Plentiful went postward on Derby Day. The betting public had turned their backs on the Duncan/Stewart hopeful, making Plentiful the sixth choice in the wagering. Family and friends of Gary Stewart however, hoped and prayed for a Plentiful win.
The star of the barn ignored the mutuels and ran the race of his young life, leaving super filly Escape Clause and six others in his wake. The heartful bay paid a whopping $23.40 to win. With his Derby win, Plentiful put the finishing touches on a historic comeback of the Duncan/Stewart Racing Stable.
Take nothing away from Plentiful, his rider, Tyrone Nelson or his conditioner, Murray Duncan, but were there otherworldly influences at work that day?
Whatever it was, Hollywood couldn't have scripted a better ending. One year after Gary's passing, the Duncan/Stewart Racing Stable celebrated its greatest accomplishment -- a victory in the Manitoba Derby -- as Gary smiled and applauded his friend, his family, and his horse.
From the great grandstand above.