In family tree terms, the “father” of Assiniboia Downs was Polo Park race track. The “grandfather” in this imaginary ancestry, with apologies for the lack of female references, was Whittier Park. The “great-grandfather” and we will go back no further, was River Park.
These three tracks provide the backdrop for the formal horse racing that predated the opening of the Downs in June 1958. This week we will take a look at River Park.
All evidence of River Park in Winnipeg has disappeared, but it was located at the foot of what is now the St. Vital Bridge and covered approximately 130 acres in the area we now know as Churchill Drive Park. River Park stretched east and west of Osborne Street and covered the river frontage from the present day Eccles Street in the east to the site of the old Elm Park Bridge in the west. It ran south from the Red River and was bordered on the west side of Osborne Street by Jubilee Avenue.
River Park was officially opened on June 20, 1891. The main attraction in the early days was its half-mile race track and grandstand. Horse racing at River Park started around 1893 and was primarily harness racing. As the years passed and its popularity grew, River Park became a year round facility. The facility was a full-fledged amusement park complete with a midway and boardwalk. It was used for baseball, football and lacrosse and even had its own zoo, which was closed in the early 1900s. During the winter, there was a skating rink, toboggan slides and horse racing on the river!
Prior to 1920 horse racing in Winnipeg consisted of informal meets held by the Winnipeg Driving Club. In 1920 public interest in racing was tweaked by livestock men from the Union Stock Yards in St. Boniface who would race their horses for the sport of it. Eventually, these unofficial challenges were held at River Park to accommodate the growing public interest.
This new interest convinced the Winnipeg Driving Club to hold race meeting in 1921. The early meets were a financial failure and problems arose when the racing group was unable to raise the $1,200 rental fee owing to the Winnipeg Electric Company, the owner of River Park -- enter R. James Speers and friends.
Speers, Thomas Sumner and William Halpenny took over a three-year lease of River Park in 1922. Horse racing under Speers was held at River Park from 1922 to 1925. In 1934 however, one final race meet was held from August 4 to 11, in conjunction with Winnipeg’s Diamond Jubilee.
In the spring of 1942 the Winnipeg Electric Company gave notice to the proprietors telling them to remove their concessions. At about the same time, the Company announced plans to replace the park with a residential subdivision.
There is still some green space along the river in the name of Churchill Drive Park, but it occupies only a fraction of the area that old River Park did during its glory days. Sadly, there are few people left with any memories of River Park, and every year their numbers dwindle.