by Bob Gates
How do you pay tribute to the father/son duo of Jean-Louis and Pierre-Louis, who were important contributors to the history of Assiniboia Downs? It isn’t an easy task, but let’s give it a go.
First, we should acknowledge the elephant in the room. There may be some that feel taking the lion’s share of the purses for three wins in the Winnipeg Futurity and four more in the Manitoba Derby is more than adequate compensation. But is it really?
The issue of out-of-town horsemen dropping by the Downs for a select race or two and leaving in the dead of night is nothing new. A name you’ve all become familiar with, Robert James Speers, always believed that raising the level of competition was good for racing and that large purses attract the best horses.
If your barn wasn’t up to running with the best, then you should do something about it. The idea being that local racetrack patrons deserve to see the finest horses the country has to offer.
Pop Quiz: Who holds the Downs record for most wins in the Manitoba Derby by an owner?
Answer: The Levesque family, Jean-Louis won three: 1970 Fanfreluche, 1975 L’Enjoleur and 1977 Giboulee, while son Pierre-Louis won in 1983 with Gone to Royalty.
Six horses wearing the racing silks of Jean-Louis started in five Winnipeg Futuritys and posted a record of three wins (1974 L’Enjoleur, 1977 L’Alezane and 1981 Le Danseur), two seconds and a third. Nine horses racing under the Levesque name started in seven Manitoba Derbys and finished with a record of four wins (as listed above), two seconds and a third.
You might think the early Levesque-link to our Downs came in 1970 when Jean-Louis’ Fanfreluche won the Manitoba Centennial Derby, but that would not be correct.
In the early 1960s former starter at the Downs and well-known Winnipeg horseman, Duke Campbell made his way east. In Toronto he operated a large public stable that featured Jean-Louis Levesque as a client.
Who knew? In 1964 Levesque purchased a full sister to Northern Dancer for the princely sum of $100,000. Arctic Dancer’s racing career was a short one, but she had a daughter that knew how to run, her name? La Prevoyante, who as two-year-old went 12-for-12.
In August 2022 the Downs’ history blog told the story of Ron Turcotte’s memories of Secretariat, Northern Dancer and Assiniboia Downs. A part of that discussion centered on the 1970 Manitoba Centennial Derby, when Ron had the mount on the Levesque filly Fanfreluche, who did not disappoint.
Ron explained that he enjoyed riding for Mr. Levesque, but had one regret. Fanny suffered a narrow defeat in the 1970 Queen’s Plate. It was a loss for which Ron accepted full responsibility. The filly’s second-place Plate finish would be Ron’s best finish in the Canadian classic, but we digress, back to the Facebook post.
No one was more surprised and delighted than the history guy to see the following comment from none-other than Pierre-Louis Levesque:
“Oh wow! What a surprise to see that great picture! Brings back a lot of memories. We had quite a party after the race! Very, very fond memories of Assiniboia Downs. A few years later I won that prestigious race with Gone to Royalty. I also have wonderful memories of Ron, my fellow Brother in the Knighthood. I am now out of racing but once in a while I catch these posts and I smile. It was a great Life! Thanks for the memories.”
A select few reflections about our Downs as shared by Pierre-Louis:
1970: This Derby was special. It was the only one where Pierre-Louis made the trip with his father. He said it was an honour to meet the Queen and Prince Phillip. He described his family as strong federalists. Pierre-Louis recalled how impressed his father was with the quality of the Prince’s French. Another lasting remembrance was that Jack Hardy was such a great host.
1975: Pierre-Louis had just married, and his business affairs would not allow him to make the trip. He said his father was honoured to be in the company of Hall of Famers Starr and Hawley, and hockey great, Bobby Hull. The proud son went on to explain that Downs owner James Wright was a good friend of the family and that the 1970s were a wonderful time for horse racing.
1977: Once again the younger Levesque reminisced about Giboulee’s Manitoba Derby triumph, but admitted to feeling overwhelmed by Giboulee’s 1977 “Run for the Roses.” He described Giboulee as a “character” horse who gave it his all in every race. While his Kentucky Derby run was not a winning effort, he performed to the best of his ability and finished a credible seventh against the mighty Seattle Slew.
1983: Gone to Royalty was Pierre-Louis' horse. “It was a fun trip, with lots of good memories.” He said he was shocked by the win. “The hospitality was great, and we were treated very well!”
With all of these great mental souvenirs, he rather sheepishly recalled one more. “The mosquitoes were huge, unrelenting and just awful!” Welcome to Winnipeg Pierre-Louis.
In a subsequent email exchange, as he reflected on his trips to Assiniboia Downs, Pierre-Louis explained, “I am writing this email as I look at the Manitoba Derby trophy of Gone to Royalty.”
Pierre-Louis’ Derby win in 1983 was extra special. His jockey that day was our own Irwin Driedger. As it turns out, Irwin’s winning Derby effort was his last win at Assiniboia Downs. Irwin would retire in 1990 but was not able to muster a win on his final pre-retirement mounts on August 12, 1990, which he celebrated at the Downs.
Ever wonder what a jockey means when they say (in reference to an owner) “He was a good guy to ride for?”
How about this for an explanation. On the day of his last rides at the Downs, Irwin received a telegram and an arrangement of flowers to acknowledge his retirement. It was from…
Pierre-Louis Levesque. Talk about a class act!