by Bob Gates
Jockey Tommy Stadnyk "… has broken his legs twice, has broken both wrists, his collarbone 'many times' and other bones 'I can't remember.' He says he's never been 'seriously' hurt." -- Steve Simmons, Calgary Herald 1984
There will be a number of local horse racing patrons who are not familiar with the name Tommy Stadnyk. His photo is located in the history area of the main lobby in the Downs’ grandstand with all the other riders who won leading jockey titles at Assiniboia Downs. So, who exactly is he?
Tom got his start in the sport when he was 16. In the late 1940s he began his apprenticeship with Meadowbrook Stables. This was an entry-level position where you first learned to muck stalls and walk hots. The following year, veteran jockey Nick Cizik taught young Tom the ropes. If you're looking to learn how to ride, you could do a whole lot worse than learn from Cizik, an accomplished rider in his own right.
Tom's first career win came on June 25, 1951, at Polo Park racetrack. He rode Meadowbrook's Gay Thought to victory, paying a handsome $40.80, $25.10, $17.95 across the board. Tom was ready, willing, and able when the Downs opened for business in 1958.
Tom found wins hard to come by in that opening season, but things really got rolling for him in 1959. When he won his first riding title the Downs was still in diapers. "Hustlin" Hugo Dittfach won the title in 1958 and set the Downs mark for most wins in a season with 55. Dittfach moved on to the larger eastern tracks and Stadnyk took over as leading rider in 1959, 1960 and 1961.
In 1961 Tom toppled Dittfach’s win total when he rode 59 winners. Tom finished second in 1962 and third in 1963 before a variety of factors led to him to spend the balance of his career riding mostly in Alberta. He would only return to the Downs for stakes races when he was riding a shipper, and probably visited only a handful of times after 1963.
During his six-year career at the Downs, Tom was a force to be reckoned with in the hallowed place referred to as the "Room." In the years that followed, Tom's single season win record (59 wins) would fall and new ones would be set. The current record holder for jockey wins in a single season is Irwin Driedger, who rode 214 winners in 1981.
It was no small accomplishment for a local kid to win the Downs leading jockey title in 1959. Nineteen years would pass before another rider from Manitoba would duplicate the feat. In 1978 Russell's Irwin Driedger won the title and it was 29 years between Stadnyk's 1959 title and Winnipeg's Brian Bochinski's leading rider title in 1988.
In terms of total career victories at the Downs, by the end of 1962 Tom had amassed 207 wins with Maple Creek, Saskatchewan's Dick Armstrong in second place with 116 winners. When racing was done in 1964 the two men were tied with each other, having recorded 246 trips to the charmed circle, even though Stadnyk didn't ride at the Downs in 1964.
In 1965 Armstrong became the jockey with the most career wins at the Downs. Once again, one record would give way to another as the years passed. The current record holder, Ken Hendricks, sits atop the leader board with most career wins at the Downs with 1,666.
From the school of it's not about being right, but getting it right, I must confess to an error I made quite a few stories ago. In a piece I did about Dick Armstrong, I incorrectly credited him with setting a record when he rode five winners on a single card on July 18, 1962. But he wasn’t the first jockey to do it at the Downs.
On June 23, 1961, Tommy Stadnyk had himself a day to remember. He won race #2 aboard Alta Pilot, race #3 on Winna Peg, Race #5 with Chaps, race #6 on Bushed and race #7 aboard Midland Empire. Sorry about that Tommy!
Under the category of "when you're hot, you're hot" a couple of memorable days in Tom's career at the Downs come to mind. On July 17, 1961, he went a perfect 8-for-8. On the eight-race card Tom won two races, placed second four times, and added two thirds.
On June 18, 1962, Tom rode the first six races on a historic card which saw riding legend Eddie Arcaro visit the Downs. Twenty-nine-year-old Tom from 500 Magnus Avenue in Winnipeg put on a real show for Arcaro, scoring three wins, two seconds and a third. Not a bad day's work when you consider that he didn’t have a mount in either of the last two races. One year to the day later, Assiniboia Downs honored its all-time winningest jockey with a "Tommy Stadnyk" day.
To help celebrate the occasion, two of Canada's greatest riders, Ron Turcotte and Jimmy Fitzsimmons were on hand to pay tribute to Stadnyk for his contribution to the Winnipeg horse racing scene. Race #6 was named the "Tommy Stadnyk Purse” and the North End lad was presented with a $100 Manitoba Bond by Downs owner Jack Hardy, a gold City of Winnipeg pin by Alderman Mark Danzker, and a watch by Harry Crane, on behalf of the horsemen. The race was won by Bala Roman, who was piloted by Ron Turcotte, the future rider of the mighty Secretariat.
If there was a defining moment in Tom’s career at the Downs, it was his win aboard Fort Strome in the 32nd running of the 1961 Winnipeg Futurity. Following the race, he couldn’t hold back his excitement, "I've been waiting for this one for 10 long years… Man, it sure feels great."
Tom proved the win was no fluke when he came back and won the Futurity in 1962 on Whisper Whim and in 1963 with Double Dove. Tommy Stadnyk is the only jockey in the 91-year history of the Winnipeg Futurity to win the race in three consecutive years. And the 1963 win with Double Dove is part of another record. Double Dove and Stadnyk finished in a dead-heat for the win with Canadian Zenith. You can look, but you'll not find another stakes race at the Downs that ended in a dead-heat for first.
There was a terrific article in the Calgary Herald back in 1984, written by Steve Simmons, that summed up the life of native Winnipegger Tommy Stadnyk.
"Stadnyk has become a part-time jockey, not by his choice, but by the choice of others. He rides the difficult horses, some horsemen say, until the horses are no longer difficult. He rides the young horses, others say, until they are mature. He rides a horse until he is ready to win. Then without thanks or apology the mount is taken from him, given to a younger man, a lighter man."
Definitive stats about Tom’s career are unofficial at best. He long preceded any Equibase numbers. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration however, to credit him with 1,500 wins in a career that spanned almost 40 years.
Tom's career limped on until 1990 or thereabouts, when he disappeared from the sports pages for ever. Efforts to find out what happened to the kid from the North End were challenging. His wife, Deanna passed March 13, 2002, and many were sure Tom was gone as well. Yet there was no confirmation of his death. Finally, I have it on reasonable authority that Winnipeg's Tommy Stadnyk is living in a long-term care facility in Edmonton. Tom is in his 89th year and will celebrate his 89 birthday on December 27, 2021.
This is a longshot, but I hope this story finds its way to Tommy or one of his loved ones. Best wishes from the fans at Assiniboia Downs and your friends in Winnipeg Mr. Stadnyk!
Thanks for the memories!