by Bob Gates
After researching 50 years of newspaper articles and the like, you'd really think there would be a captivating headline regarding a Derby or an award-winning horse that would stand out over all others. No sir!
Oh, I found a couple of items that shone a light on the life and times of Tom Dodds, but they didn't come from the sports pages. Nope, believe it or not they came from the Classified Ads page in the newspaper.
The first came in February 1987:
"I am back in Winnipeg at Assiniboia Downs and still have space available for a few horses in the 1987 season. Give me a call, Tom Dodds …"
More than 10 years later in March 1999 the following ad appeared:
"Help wanted farm & track. Full-time April - September. Must love horses. Tom Dodds …"
These ads spoke volumes and helped put Dodds' folksy demeanor in perspective.
Tom was in his early 20s when life brought him to Winnipeg from the thriving metropolis of Carlyle, Saskatchewan. In the early ‘70s he was a rodeo type who loved horses. He worked as a farrier for a time, then bought himself a couple of thoroughbreds and started training at the Downs in 1974.
Tom became an important part of the Downs' racing scene until 1980, but left us for points west and south. He returned to the Portage Avenue track in late 1986 to begin preparations for the 1987 racing season and beyond.
All told, Tom spent the better part of 27 race meets at Assiniboia Downs covering 1974 to 2012. He's now fully retired, but before he locked-up his barn, he garnered the following accomplishments.
- Won 690 races, tying him for 5th place in all-time trainer wins at the Downs.
- Won five Downs’ leading trainer titles, only three other trainers have more. The late Ardell Sayler leads the way with a record 12 titles. Retired Clayton Gray won seven and Tom Gardipy, Jr. (still actively training) has six to his credit.
- Won 78 races in 1990, a single-season training record at the Downs.
- One of only three trainers to win three consecutive training titles. Tom did it from 1988 to 1990, Clayton Gray from 1972 to 1974 and Ardell Sayler accomplished the feat twice from 2000 to 2002 and then again from 2004 to 2006.
Even considering his six-year absence (1980-1985) from the Downs, Dodds is well regarded for having one of the strongest barns in the 63-year history of the track. During Dodds' domination of his competitors from 1988 to 1997, local media types referred to him as the D. Wayne Lukas or Charles Whittingham of Assiniboia Downs. Now there's some heady company.
There isn't enough room here to tell you about the stock that called Tom's barn home over the years. Any trainer would consider themselves blessed to have one or two of them, but Tom had them all! How many of these can you recall?
P.C.'s Bluff, S.S. Pee Wee, Northern Debut, Tenacity, Seven L. Suz, D'Argent, Miss Noire, Mr. Winston, Sunraysed, Black Jack Cat.
Best horse ever? Beau Blade. He was fast. Blade won and set track records wherever he ran.
Best performance ever? Nephrite. This boy's 6-furlong, 1:09 Downs’ track record on October 8, 1989, was fast. Yeah, but four months earlier Tom was told the horse only had a 10% chance of living. "His stomach was in knots." Doc Elder removed adhesions from Nephrite's intestines and the horse recovered, bucked a strong headwind on that October 8th and survived suicidal fractions to prevail.
Runner that gave it his all every time out? Hasty Mister. He might have been a cheap claimer in terms of dollars, but he was all heart and would "run his eyeballs out" every time he ran.
Thoughts from Brian Bochinski and his wife, Tracey:
Jockey Brian: "Tom and Jane gave me the opportunity of a lifetime when I was starting out and took me on as a stable rider. I think we won almost every stakes race except the Manitoba Derby. He is one of the Downs' best."
Stable hand Tracey: "I came to work in Tom and Jane's barn and was green as can be but Tom, Jane and the late Debbie Richardson taught me pretty much everything and I ended up grooming so many nice horses. They are just great people."
A few words from Tom's life-partner Jane: "Tom and I have been together since 1982. We had a lot of good times racing through the years. It was a great life back in those days, but I can't imagine working that hard now.
Our son Matt loved his years growing up at the racetrack and has tons of great racing/farm memories. And as Tom will tell you, being a dad was and still is his best thing ever! Now that Tom is retired, he has embraced golf with almost the same intensity as horse racing. "
Recently Tom has been going through his old photo albums and reflecting.
"I am amazed at how many really nice horses I trained over the years," said Tom. "I am not sure that I really appreciated it enough at the time. Maybe I was just too tired. I can't count the number of times we would win a stake and just go home, have a bowl of cereal, go to bed, get up the next morning and do it all over again. I maybe didn't realize how lucky we were."
At the end of one of our discussions Tom mused about the good old days, "When horses seemed to last a little longer." A thought well-worth considering. Thanks for that, Tom!
Alexander and Jean Dodds raised two boys, one with an interest in cars and the other in horses. Carlyle Saskatchewan's #1 son, our own, Thomas Alexander Dodds sums it up nicely…
"Must love horses!"