by Bob Gates
There are times when the past begs to be remembered. To hear her story, you must listen carefully, because sometimes it comes to you in unusual ways.
The most recent case of nostalgia-like-symptoms came courtesy of the Winnipeg Free Press. This year on opening day the Free Press ran a half-page article complete with photo on its front page! When was the last time that happened? The following day the Downs was featured on the front page of the Sports/Arts/Life section.
Isn't it great to see horse racing lead the way again, the way it once did all those years ago?
Free Press sportswriter Elman Guttormson and the now defunct Tribune sports guy, Harold Loster, are both gone now, and they were not the first to cover racing for the local papers, but they ruled the roost when the Downs was still in diapers. Their columns graced the sports pages several times a week and they reported on all things racing. Racing never had it so good!
These days, the overnight entries, graded selections, form chart results and the daily racing columns are gone. Now, you get a weekly column that cannot be expected to provide all the racing news.
Sixty years ago, a typical Assiniboia Downs race card had two exotic wagers, the Daily Double and the last race Quinella. Now a card has betting pools galore with multiple exotic wagers.
The once exclusive second floor Turf Club is now known simply as the clubhouse. And we think nothing of the sight of public pay phones located throughout the grandstand. Heaven knows everyone carries their own phone these days. However, this was not always the case. At one time, the only phones on the grounds were in the General Office. This was deemed necessary to thwart the activities of bookmakers. If you needed a cab or had an emergency, you went to the General Office for assistance and for the use of a phone.
Free parking and admission were a pipe dream, except ladies could get in for free on "Ladies Day." A reduced entry fee for the last three races might tempt fans, or you could wait for the last race and get in for free. There was always a good crowd waiting for security to open the gates so frugal punters could try to take down the last race quinella with pools that were known to swell from $30,000 to $50,000. Let's not forget the 15-cent program, whose price and format would evolve over the years to the present day $3 price tag.
In the unlikely event you haven’t noticed I love this sport, I feel sorry for those who venture out for a day at the races with the sole purpose of nailing a Win-4 or Pick-5. Sure I get it, racing needs a good handle because it pays the bills, and we can’t ignore the VLTS in the Club West Gaming Lounge, because they do the same. But at days end, it's about the horses and those that race for racing itself.
Horse people are a special breed. They have to be. Horses don't do weekends or holidays. They are a 24/7 responsibility. There is a uniqueness to the relationship between the oat-eating rock stars and the people who care for them.
Assiniboia Downs relies on good old-fashioned hard-working horsemen and women who support racing at the Downs and return year after year. They aren’t getting rich, but they try to make enough to keep their stock in feed and fuel their passion for the sport at the same time.
At one time, racing may have been the Sport of Kings, but no longer. It now belongs to all of us. Racing is a way of life and is cherished by those who have chosen it as their vocation. It seems like every year begins with a new set of challenges. A lesser sport would have long since folded.
Look at the people of racing. Who do you see? These are people who care and love the sport more than most of us will ever understand. Sure, times have changed, but their passion for the sport and its precious nickering athletes, has not.
And never will.