by Bob Gates
Deep within the confines of the north end of the Assiniboia Downs grandstand on the lower level is a restricted area where only jockeys, valets and officials are allowed. Of course, this is “The Room,” the place jockeys call home.
Thoughts on the Room: Sandy Dimma, former wife of the jockey, Bobbie Dimma put it this way “I knew there was one… It was their own private little world.” Retired jockey agent, Lorne Spearman handled Irwin Driedger’s book from 1976 until Irwin’s retirement in 1990 and said that they never talked about the Room. He explained that as a jockey agent he had no access to the Room, nor was he permitted to speak with Irwin after a race when the blonde rider was returning to the jocks’ room after a race. “The Room was Irwin’s sanctuary.”
Let’s look at the people who make up the Room. First up, of course are the jockeys. In 2022 and 2023 the Downs jockey colony featured four riders who had previously won the leading rider title: Antonio Whitehall (2018 tie, 2020), Jorge Carreno (2021, 2022), Prayven Badrie (2018 tie) and Chavion Chow (2015). This speaks to the quality of the riders who sit atop the four-legged, half-ton sticks of dynamite. It has been said that pound-for-pound jockeys are the strongest and quickest athletes in sports.
Downs jockey record holders who called the Room home include Jimmy Sorenson: most wins on a single card – 7, Irwin Driedger: most wins in a season – 214, Bobby Stewart: most leading rider titles – 6, Ken Hendricks: all-time leading jockey by wins – 1,666.
How about a special shout-out to one of those young Canadian kids, who at one time were common in the jockey colonies of yesteryear. Nowadays most of our riders come from the United States, Mexico, Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad. Nineteen-year-old Fraser Aebly hails from Grand Prairie, Alberta and serves as a reminder of others like himself who came from Small Town, Canada. You remember, the hard-working young ones who loved and appreciated every ride they were able to get.
Aebly is an apprentice who is enjoying a successful meet in his first season at the Downs. The August 14, 2023, program has his record at 13-16-8 from 61 starts. His win percentage is tops at 21% and his “in the money” percentage sits at 61%, also tops among his peers.
We could easily dedicate this entire blog story exalting the virtues and accomplishments of the riders. However, the Room is made up of others who don’t get enough credit for the role they play. So this is for them as well!
Another significant group that makes up the Room are the valets. These men have been described as “assistant trainers” and “equipment managers.” They are blessed with a special skill set to deal with the riders in the Room, in addition to the trainers and equine stars of the track in the paddock.
What does a valet actually do? Generally speaking, the valet tacks and untacks horse and rider before and after a race. Their duties include looking after the jockey’s tack (equipment), making sure he has what he needs to clean up between races, and in more general terms do what ever is required so the jock only has to focus on riding. In the paddock, a valet assists with the saddling of the horse, although the ultimate responsibility for that rests with the trainer.
Currently the Downs has seven valets looking after 17 jockeys and with not much time between races being efficient, knowing and understanding your duties are keys to a valet’s success. Time for another shout out. Bill Chabot and Doug Addison are the two most experienced valets. Bill has 36 years on his resume and Doug has 30. While Peter Rocke has only a handful of years as valet, he has been in and around the horse biz for 45 years.
The Room is hurting a bit these days as Doug got banged-up pretty good when a horse and a paddock post made a “valet sandwich” out of him. Doug is done for this year, but we are happy to tell you that he is on the mend and will be ready for the 2024 season.
The Room has what amounts to an entry-level position which through the years was known as the “colour boy.” Perhaps not the most flattering of titles. The position was usually filled by a young lad around the age of 10 or so. His job was to put out the silks (jockey colours) for a race and he doubled as the jock’s room runner, tending to the various needs of the riders, usually in the food and beverage area, which he happily retrieved from the grandstand concession stands.
In recent years the position also includes waiting after each race with a walkie-talkie just off the clubhouse turn rail in the event jockeys need to report a claim of foul. The young man performs the patrol judge-like duty of reporting the alleged infraction to the stewards.
We reached out to Rob Nokes, not to be confused with his father, Bob Nokes for his memories of the Room. The elder Nokes was a valet in the early days of the Downs for legendary Bobby Stewart. Rob recalled his first mission as “runner” was getting an ice-cream cone for jockey Jacques Desautels, and he also recalled the repeat popcorn orders for Irwin Driedger. After 12 years in the Room all those years ago, Rob said that to this day he still has dreams about being late to put out the silks for the next race.
Do you ever leave horse racing in the past? Nope. Rob, who now enjoys a successful career as a sound producer for television and the movie industry, won last year’s Manitoba Derby with his horse, Red Knobs.
The Room also includes a physiotherapist and an assistant clerk of scales. Ever wonder who heads up this team? Over the years the title Custodian morphed into Supervisor of the Jocks Room. The word custodian could give the impression that it was more of a caretaking duty, which it certainly is not!
Dwayne Addison, the current Supervisor of the Jocks Room, is also the Clerk of Scales, which makes him responsible for all aspects of the Room. This includes weighing all riders and reporting such to all necessary parties, keeping order in the room as it relates to the rules of racing, hiring of valets and the silks/patrol judge, distribution of official rulings and other related paperwork from the Stewards to the riders, and keeping the Room running like a well-oiled machine.
Dwayne is in his 27th year (1997-2023) as Supervisor. Prior to 1997 he was a valet and before that he was the “colour boy” and that goes back more than 50 years.
Dwayne’s wife Leslie is assistant clerk of scales, his brother Doug a valet, and their father “Billy” was a valet for riders Jimmy Anderson, Larry Bird, Bobbie Dimma and Kenny “Hank” Hendricks. In fact it was Billy who gave Hendricks the nickname “Hank,” a name that followed Kenny his entire career and still does today.
Dwayne’s tenure as head of the Room speaks for itself and when the time comes for his retirement his presence will be missed. In terms of experience, after Dwayne, former rider Bernie Howland has the second most years as Supervisor with 18 (1978-1995). If you do the math Dwayne and Bernie have guided the Room for almost 70% of the time that the Downs has been in operation. Other Room Supervisors included Joe Russell (1958), Nick Cizik (1959-1962), Eddie Wittfoth (1963-1967), Fred Silbernagel (1968-1970), and E. G. “Junior” McMullan (1971-1977 and 1996).
A recent tour of the Room with Dwayne was an experience. The Room is fairly spartan in its décor, but its history oozes from every “pore” in the home of today’s saddlesmiths. To see the “houses” where Hank, Bobby Stewart, Irwin Driedger and Brian Bochinski hung their tack was a trip back in time.
You have to wonder if the riders of 2023 know of the men who once hung their tack in the same “house.” Antonio Whitehall uses the carrel once occupied by “Hank.” Bobby Stewart’s house now belongs to Jorge Carreno. Dwight Lewis probably wishes that some of Irwin Driedger’s mojo would rub-off on him and wouldn’t Shavon Belle like to have a few of Brian Bochinski’s wins.
Thinking of dissing one the members of Dwayne’s team? It wouldn’t be wise to do so if Dwayne is within earshot. He is fiercely loyal to all members of his “family,” the one that occupies the hallowed ground…