Arguably the most hallowed piece of real estate at any race track is the Winner's Circle, also sometimes referred to as the winner's enclosure and the charmed circle. Oddly enough, ours is not, and never has been, a circle!
Mind you, not all race tracks even have a Winner's Circle. Some tracks parade winners in front of the grandstand and simply pose for the victory photo on the race track.
When it first opened in 1958, the Downs was billed as "Western Canada's finest race track" and was greeted with glowing reviews, with one exception. The Winner's Circle was described in the print media as "entirely inadequate." Rather than a colourful horseshoe-shaped enclosure adorned with flowers, it was little more than a squared-off area bordered by a chain link fence.
So it wasn't long before Downs' management ordered a new and improved enclosure where the race winner could mark the occasion in a style more in keeping with the tradition of the "Sport of Kings."
In 1962, the first of two transformations took place. Gone was the chain link fence and in its place was a more ornate multi-tiered brick wall planter. This new enclosure was well-received, and other than a few minor changes in the surrounding greenery, it would serve the Downs well for the next 35 years.
In the 1960s, we actually had two Winner's Circles. A second enclosure was set up in the infield and was used to celebrate the winners of special stakes races such as the Manitoba Derby and the Gold Cup. This enclosure was used to complement the regular enclosure, but most of us haven't seen it used in many years.
Over the years racing changed and horse ownership evolved. A horse often had more than one owner or perhaps was owned by a syndicate of a dozen or more individuals. In addition, race sponsors were becoming popular, so it was not unusual to have 10 to 20 people in the Winner's Circle. So it was back to the drawing board to come up with a new design to celebrate the winner of a race.
Downs' CEO Darren Dunn was the Director of Operations back in 1997 and undertook the project of revamping the Winner's Circle to take it into the new millennium. Dunn explained that he had the television production team record simulcast feeds to review different enclosures from across North America. The style of our current Winner's Circle was based on the enclosure at Fairgrounds in Louisiana.
The new crescent-shaped design was chosen because it was open, large, and wide enough to accommodate a horse with its connections and when necessary, large sponsorship groups. The enclosure was moved north of its previous locale and the hard plastic, low maintenance no-paint, coral fencing that surrounds it has become a winner with both fans and horsemen.
The telling of this story wouldn't be complete if we didn't mention the record setting horses and people who have graced our charmed circle since 1958.
- Most Career Wins: Job's Alibi 29 (1976 to 1983)
- Most Wins in a Season: Navy Days 11 (1983), Major Action 11 (1987)
- Most Career Wins: Gary Danelson 1,147 (1959-2013)
- Most Wins in a Season: Tom Dodds 78 (1990)
- Most Wins on a Single Card: Gilbert Ducharme 5 (October 9, 1985)
- Most Career Wins: Ken Hendricks 1,666 (1969-2007)
- Most Wins in a Season: Irwin Driedger 214 (1981)
- Most Wins on a Single Card: Jim Sorenson 7 (June 23, 1976)
There really is no greater feeling than to have your picture taken in the Winner's Circle. It's a special place and an honour that is difficult to put to words, a feeling you have to experience to fully appreciate. And it doesn't seem to matter whether the winning horse is a bottom-level claimer or a stakes race champion.
The Winner's Circle will always be hallowed ground, where spirits of past winners congregate, and welcome.
Victors yet to come.