by Bob Gates
Where does the time go? June 10, 2019 marked the 50th anniversary of the death of John Wright Sifton. The upcoming running of the J. W. Sifton Memorial on September 7 honours Mr. Sifton’s memory and it will be the 50th time that 3-year-old Manitoba breds will vie for his trophy. Manitobans everywhere know the Sifton name, but who was John Wright Sifton?
Across the North American continent, John Sifton was known as a newspaperman with a love for horses. He came by those passions honestly. John was the son of Major Wilfred Victor Sifton, a giant in Canadian journalism and the editor and publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press. Victor Sifton also rode, bred and showed horses. John was the grandson of Sir Clifford Sifton, a lawyer, publisher and statesman, and he shared the name of his uncle, Major John Wright Sifton, who was a steward at old River Park racetrack.
John Sifton knew everyone at the racetrack and was a past president of the Assiniboia Downs Turf Club, director of the Turf Club and the Canadian Horse Shows Association, and founder of the Winnipeg Benefit Horse Show. At the time of his death John was also the president of the Manitoba Thoroughbred Breeders Association.
After a lengthy battle with cancer John Sifton was taken from us at the youthful age of 43. Following his death, Winnipeg Free Press horse racing columnist, the late Reyn Davis, spoke with several influential horse racing types and came up with these quotes:
G. Sydney Halter: "I think racing in Manitoba has suffered great loss in John's passing. He was an ardent member of the HBPA executive. He would attend every meeting they had with the racing commission. I always found his views to be very sound and in the best interests of racing. His death was quite a personal loss. I knew him as a very good friend at all times."
Jack Hardy: "He's really going to be missed in the racing industry. His death is a tragedy, particularly at his age."
Scotty Kennedy: "I've lost a close friend of many years standing. He will definitely be missed in the racing world, not only in Manitoba but Canada and the United States."
Dr. Norm Anderson: "John Sifton has passed on but he will always live in my memory. Our association was constant over the past 25 years and our mutual interest in thoroughbred horses brought us very close together. He was one of God's few noblemen. I will miss him immensely."
John would be proud of the history of his race. Among the 3-year-old Manitoba-breds that have won the Memorial, names like Northern Spike and Proven Reserve are standouts.
Look down the list of owners who have won the race and you'll see that the Sifton colours hit the winner's circle three times (1975 Patricia Too, 1984 Blazing Alarm and 1992 Sam's Commander), but no name figures more prominently than Barry Arnason, who has been a part of four winners in the six-year period from 2012 to 2017.
Trainer honours go to two men who are no longer with us, Ivan Dowler and Harry Kube, each with three victories in the Memorial. Frank Licata tops the jockey list with four wins.
Sifton Memorial Bits and Pieces:
- Filly Merry's Hi Note won the inaugural Memorial in 1970 and only four others of her sex appear on the list of previous winners.
- 1976 winner Peace Night is the "bombs-away" winner, lighting up the tote board to the tune of $76.80 to win.
- One of the biggest upsets came in 1979 when Glen Ball's Northern Diamond beat up on June Sifton's Sovereign Award winner-to-be, Liz's Pride, who finished last in the field of seven.
- In both 1989 and 1991 mutuel betting entries of 1 and 1A ran first and second.
Following John's tragic death in 1969, his widow, June, soldiered on and her pink with green shamrock silks would grace the winner's circle for years to come. Sadly, June passed August 26, 2016. The local racing scene benefitted greatly from the Siftons' love for horses and theirs is a loss from which you never fully recover.
This year, as we celebrate the 50th running of the Sifton Memorial, let us pause and reflect on John and June's contributions to Canadian thoroughbred horse racing. Sifton horses that immediately come to mind are Pool to Market, Clique, One and Only and Liz's Pride. The Sifton story has come full circle with the sale last fall of Stoneacres, their home base for decades.
The Siftons are gone, and time marches on. The John W. Sifton Memorial remains as the family's legacy to horse racing…
At our own, Assiniboia Downs.