Women who rocked the Powder Puff Derby

Jul 1, 2014 | ASD History

Eileen Blake, winner of the first Powder Puff Derby at ASD in 1960.

Eileen Blake, winner of the first Powder Puff Derby at ASD in 1960.

by Bob

I’m guessing the name “Powder Puff” was created by a male of our species. Certainly there aren’t many women these days that would come up with such a sexist sounding name for a horse race featuring women-only riders or “jockettes” as they were often called, a term which you will not see used again in this blog!

Back in the day, the Powder Puff Derby was more of a novelty than anything else, and it has since gone the way of the proverbial covered wagon, and for good reason. Race tracks across the nation now feature female jockeys as a matter of course. Most jockey colonies would suffer greatly in terms of numbers and talent were it not for the female component of the resident saddlesmiths.

In Canada, the all-female jockey races got their start in Calgary in the early 1940s. At best, records are sketchy and in most instances non-existent. It appears these races were run on a hit and miss basis, but horse racing didn’t have a monopoly on these events. Similar female-only contests were also held in stock car racing, sailing and even aviation races.

Assiniboia Downs got into the game with its first Powder Puff Derby in 1960. There was no wagering on the race, which saw Eileen Blake ride her husband Bert Blake’s horse Present Day to victory. And it was a win that almost wasn’t. Present Day decided on this day she was going to be stubborn and literally froze up in the parade to post.

Powder Puff Derby 1961 at Assiniboia Downs

ASD Powder Puff Derby 1961 (L-R) Mary Dennison (4th), Connie O’Neil (3rd), Presenter Mrs. Errick Willis, Heather Willis (winner), Loni Plath (2nd).

To the uninformed it may have looked like the rider’s fault, but Mrs. Blake was an accomplished rider and was the victim of a strong-willed mare. After several tense moments, an equally determined Mrs. Blake, with the assistance of an outrider, prevailed and Present Day was led to the starting gate without further incident.

A few years back I spoke with the Blakes about the race and Mrs. Blake was gracious about her win, always giving credit to the talent of her fellow competitors. Those who know Mrs. Blake would not be surprised by this. She was a delightful lady and a joy to be around!

Mr. Blake put the victory in a different context, insisting that the win was a direct result of Mrs. Blake following his instructions to a “T” by pinning the runner-up, Linda Scott on Son O’Flak, on the rail. I’ll leave it to you to decide whose version you prefer. I’m pretty sure that Mrs. Blake winked at me as their good-natured banter about the race continued.

Mrs. Blake was awarded the Winnipeg Free Press Trophy for the victory and also received a Blue Fox Stole from the Downs to mark the occasion. The Blakes are gone now. They passed a couple of years ago. I sure miss them.

Lorna Gray Powder Puff Deby circa 1960

Accomplished equestrian and current ASD trainer Lorna Gray was a Powder Puff Derby participant in 1960.

In the second running of the Powder Puff, the Linda Scott Memorial Trophy was awarded to the winner of the race. Miss Scott was credited with original idea of establishing the race in Winnipeg. Sadly, in the fall of 1960 Linda was killed in a highway traffic accident. She was only 22.

The Powder Puff was run annually from 1960 to 1964 and sporadically thereafter. In addition, it became a regular event as part of the harness racing meets that used to be run at the Downs.

Other notable participants in the Powder Puff included 1971 winner Karen Chysyk (who would later become Karen Hendricks), and jockey Joan Phipps, who ran second in another year. The only win photo I was able to find from the race was from 1977, when Vicki Warhol was the winning jock.

Over the years the Powder Puff races just seemed to fade away, but since that time we have had several special achievements involving talented female jockeys.

1977 Powder Puff Derby winner Vicki Warhol

1977 Powder Puff Derby winner Vicki Warhol.

Vicki Warhol won five races on opening day in 1984. Janine Stianson won four in a row on opening day in 2008. Vicki Baze became the first female to capture top jockey honours in 2010, and in 2011 three female jockeys combined for a record seven wins on an eight race card. Jocelyne Kenny had the hat trick, Janine Stianson won twice, and both Jennifer Reed and Alyssa Harder scored singles.

Female riders are no longer a novelty, and the Powder Puff Derby should stay where it belongs, as a memory from another time.

R.I.P. Powder Puff Derby!