Those of us who go back to the early 1980s will know that "Spike" is none other than Northern Spike. He was owned and bred by the late Ivan Dowler in partnership with sons Graham, John and Dan - Graham and John have both passed as well.
Spike was a handsome chestnut gelding who did some of his best running early in the meet. If Spike was busy demolishing his opponents and setting track records in the process, you knew it was spring at the Downs. His name was synonymous with multiple record-setting performances, and yes Spike was a Manitoba-bred!
A quick check of the history books will reveal that no other horse's name appears more than Northern Spike's, having set or equaled records on four occasions:
- June 14, 1980 - Set track record for about 7 furlongs 1:25 2/5.
- April 23, 1982 - Set the current track record for 4 furlongs :44 2/5.
- May 9, 1982 - Set the current track record for 5 furlongs :56 2/5.
- June 13, 1982 - Equaled track record for 6 furlongs 1:09 1/5.
Spike's half mile record of :44 2/5 was a world record that made it into the Guinness Book of World Records. His five furlong mark was a Canadian record that stood for many years. How many other horses based out of the Downs could boast of such accomplishments?
The gelded grandson of Northern Dancer was no one-trick-pony. He won at distances ranging from four furlongs to 1 1/8-miles, recording 18 wins, 7 seconds and 8 thirds from 41 starts at the Downs. And he won 13 stakes, 12 at the Downs!
On July 19, 1981 the chestnut son of Northern Hawk out of Aunt Ella became the first Manitoba bred to earn more than $100,000. He would go on to amass career earnings of $186,902.
Recently I sat down with the man who knew Spike better than anyone else, Phil Hayek, who went from groom to trainer for all of Spike's time at the Downs.
The way Phil talked about Spike, well, you could just tell how much he loved and respected his four-legged friend. Phil described Spike as laid back and how he had "character-plus." He said Spike adored people and attention. His favourite treat? Carrots of course, my how he loved his orange crunchy treats! He never bit or kicked anyone out of anger. Never! A little love-bite perhaps, but only in fun, never to be mean. Ever!
Like any thoroughbred, Spike could get a little nervous on race days, but Phil's wife always had a cure. She sang to him. A German lullaby, I'm told. When she tried to walk away, he would paw his leg against the stall door until she returned and continued her song. Does it get any cuter than that?
Phil will tell you that there will never be another Spike, and he ought to know. The pair were almost inseparable. Phil spent hours just "hanging out" with the Dowler star while he grazed on the grass near the old winter barns.
Ivan Dowler died in February 1982 and in May 1984 Northern Spike was sold to American interests for a figure reported to be in the $40-50,000 range. I heard that Dan Dowler arranged for Spike to be returned to them once his racing career was done. I can’t say for sure if this was true or just damage control to pacify Spike's legions of fans.
Spike's new owners never got their money back, but it wasn't for the lack of trying. In 1984 they ran Spike 15 times and ran him a lot harder than he was used to. At that point in his career Spike was a 7-year-old and injuries took their toll on the homebred. After his last race in April 1985 he was purchased to be a jumper and faded off into the sunset, but he never returned to his home in Oakbank.
According to Phil, if Ivan had lived, Spike would never have been sold. Never, ever!
Spike was a star, a real blue-blood and a class act that would have been a standout in any barn. Ivan Dowler knew it and so did Phil Hayek. If you ever get the chance, ask Phil about Spike and watch his eyes light up and his chest swell with pride as he talks about Spike's character and his record setting sprints…
in those memorable springs long ago, at Assiniboia Downs.