by Bob Gates
When we left off last week's blog story, horse racing's future in Winnipeg looked bleak. R. J. Speers had known for some time that the Polo Park site was too valuable to be used for summer race meets and had taken an option on 200 acres in what was then the Municipality of Assiniboia. His plan was to build a bigger and better racetrack. At the same time, he sold an option on the property at Polo Park to a group of investors who planned to build what would become Polo Park Shopping Centre.
Unfortunately fate intervened. At 2 a.m. on Tuesday, July 19, 1955 racing icon Robert James Speers suffered a massive heart attack at his home at 137 Kingsway Avenue in Winnipeg and died at the age of 72.
Winnipeg racing would never be the same. Speers never divulged his plans for the replacement of Polo Park. He had indicated however, that he would have liked to partner his idea with someone or some group younger than he and have them take centre stage in operating the new facility. One thing is certain, there was no doubt that he had plans, and if necessary, he would have gone it alone.
At the close of the 1956 season the business consortium exercised the option on the Polo Park property and horse racing in Winnipeg came to a screeching halt. With Speers gone, the drive to get a new track off the ground stalled and his estate was unable to carry on with the business plan that would return racing to Winnipeg.
In October 1956, the mighty grandstand at Polo Park was torn down and the lumber was sold as salvage as fast as it was removed from the structure by the contractor, Atlas Wrecking Company. The two-story clubhouse was put up for sale with a $3,000 asking price. The demolition of Polo Park was done when the signature white gates came down in 1957.
In 1957 local businessman, J. C. Hardy purchased the property at Portage Avenue and the Perimeter Highway and commenced plans to erect a new racetrack. With a lot of hard work and after overcoming many obstacles, Assiniboia Downs opened on June 10, 1958.
Jack Hardy was racing's savior, and he did so many things right, so it's hugely unfair to talk about something that fell between the cracks, but…
When the Downs opened, absent from its stake race calendar was any race linked to Robert James Speers.
In 1959 the Downs ran a “Name the Race” contest and in a unanimous decision chose the name “R. James Speers Memorial Handicap” as the name for what was then the annual $5,000 added 1 1/8-mile classic.
In 1960 the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association of Western Canada donated a unique trophy for annual competition. The trophy, mounted on a heavy marble base, is in the form of an open book in silver. On one side is a picture of Mr. Speers and on the opposite side is a well-deserved tribute which says it all:
“The R. James Speers Trophy, presented to Assiniboia Downs for the annual running of the R. James Speers Memorial Handicap by The Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association of western Canada; Lucien Maynard, President, 1960. To honor R. James Speers, whose courage, vision, enterprise and unwavering optimism enabled him to establish thoroughbred racing on a sound foundation in western Canada. The name of R. James Speers, whose home was in Winnipeg, but whose proudest boast was that he was a Canadian, has been inscribed in the imperishable records of the sport which he loved.”
R. J. Speers Stakes (1959 - 2019) Facts & Figures:
-- The race for 3-year-olds and up was run as a memorial handicap from 1959 until 1986, after which the handicapped weight restriction was dropped and it became known as the R. J. Speers Stakes.
-- I know someone out there is busy doing the math. If the inaugural run of the Speers took place in 1959, how can the 2019 edition be the 60th? Wouldn’t it be the 61st? Well you're right, but the 1987 contest was cancelled when jockeys refused to ride because of dangerous wind conditions. The race was not rescheduled, and the $20,000 purse was used to reduce a purse overpayment situation which was estimated at $150,000. And yes, the horsemen weren't happy!
-- Largest field - 1968 and 1999, 11 horses
-- Smallest field - 1983 and 2009, 4 horses
-- Longest priced winner - 2000 Private Joe, $28.10
-- Shortest priced winner - 2015 Magic D'Oro, $2.30
-- Track Record Performances – In 1977 Island Fling set a new mark for 1 3/8-miles and in 1993 Northern Debut equaled the track record for 1 ¼-miles.
-- Jockey - Jimmy Anderson won the race a record-setting six times (1970 Fall Session, 1975 Macale, 1977, 1978 Island Fling, 1981 Scarlet Rich and 1983 Major Enterprise). This was later matched by Downs all-time winningest jockey, Ken Hendricks (1973 Tempa Senga, 1985 Chilcoton Blaze, 1989 Kapalua, 1993 Northern Debut, 1997 Copa De Ore and 2004 Deputy Country).
-- Trainer - Jack Robertson has won the race five times (1984 Bobby Q, 1989 Kapalua, 1990 Portage, 1991 Feudal and 1997 Copa De Ore). Downs all-time leading trainer (by wins) Gary Danelson now co-holds the record (1966 Cosmic Tip, 1998 Smart Figure, 1999 and 2001 Smoky Cinder and 2007 Car Keys).
-- Owner - K4/K5 Stables holds the record with six victories (1977 & 1978 Island Fling, 1980 Texas Scout, 2002 Sir Pucker, 2003 Northern Affair and 2012 Alisal).
-- Richest Purse - From 2004 to 2006 the race carried a Guaranteed Purse of $40,000.
Memorable Speers Runs:
Among the list of previous winners, you will only find the name of only one filly. To date, Arthur Liffmann's, 1968 winner, Phantom's Flower is the only one of her gender to win the race. And only one 3-year-old has ever won the Downs version of the Speers. Northern Affair beat up on older horses to capture the 2003 crown and take the bragging rights for the young ones.
No horse has ever won the Speers three times, but no fewer than six horses have won it twice - Tempa Senga (1973, 1974), Island Fling (1977, 1978), Scarlet Rich (1979, 1981), Major Enterprise (1982, 1983), Northern Debut (1992, 1993), Smoky Cinder (1999, 2001).
Northern Debut put together a nice streak. To date, he is the only horse to run in the Speers six consecutive times - finishing 3rd in 1989, 1990, 1991, winning the race in 1992 and 1993 (equaling the track record) and finishing 8th in 1994.
Scarlet Rich ran some great races as well - finishing 1st in 1979, 2nd in 1980, 1st in 1981 and was runner-up again in 1982.
Everyone has a favourite race and mine was, is and will always be, the Speers. For me, it's one of those races that carries a certain mystique. This past Saturday I had the honour of presenting the Speers trophy to this year's winner Deep Explorer.
I’ve been fortunate enough to present the 85-pound marbled masterpiece for the last few years, each bringing the opportunity to remember champions of yesteryear, while paying homage to James Speers and I can tell you…
It's a feeling that just doesn’t get old. Thank you Mr. Speers!