American Pharoah’s Halter, Mission (Almost) Impossible

May 19, 2016 | ASD History

The Stewart clan. L to R, daughter Audrey, Garylle, son-in-law Brian, granddaughter Alissa.

The Stewart clan. L to R, daughter Audrey, Garylle, son-in-law Brian, granddaughter Alissa.

by Bob Gates

By now we all know the background story that resulted in the acquisition of the prized American Pharoah halter which in addition to other racing memorabilia, was sold at auction last August in aid of the Alyssa Selman Fund.

What you probably don’t know is how close Assiniboia Downs came to actually owning the halter belonging to the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years.

Well, I’m going to tell you.  It goes something like this…

Shortly after retired Downs’ jockey Tim Gardiner obtained the halter from American Pharoah’s trainer Bob Baffert, I was lucky enough to hold it. What a treat! The experience was something else and the feeling is difficult to put into words, but it was special.

Immediately thoughts of… “the Downs has to have this piece of history,” and “wouldn’t it be a great addition to our Racing Through Time display?”  But it was going to be well beyond my means and with that I knew I had to come up with an alternative plan.

Who did I know that had the resources, desire and interest to purchase the halter by way of a legitimate winning eBay bid? And then, be willing to donate it to Assiniboia Downs.

At the time, no one knew for sure how much this piece of history would sell for at auction — $10,000, $20,000, or more!?

I’m not sure about you, but the list of people I knew I could approach was awfully short.  In fact, the list had but one name — Garylle Bruce Stewart — a valued friend of the Downs and the brother of six-time leading Downs’ jockey Bobby Stewart. Garylle presently owns horses in partnership with Carberry’s Murray Duncan.

Stewart and Murray have a small but competitive stable, headed by Go Go Lolo, who has been voted the Downs’ best older mare for the last two years by members of the HBPA.

Multiple ASD champion mare Go Go Lolo.

Multiple ASD champion mare Go Go Lolo.

This seems like a good place to say a couple of words about Garylle “Gary” Stewart.

Back in the 1960s, Gary was no stranger to the Downs. He was the track clocker and he also did a little training, but left the riding chores to younger brother, Bob. His father Glen also owned many race horses that ran at the Downs. In fact, Bob’s first win was on his Dad’s horse, Royal Ghost, in 1960. The Stewart family was a big part of the early life of the Downs.

Well, I knew I had my guy. The next step was to call the Fargo native and have a chat.  Now, I should be clear that this wasn’t one of those “cold calls.”  No sir, I have come to know the Stewart and Duncan families quite well over the past few years. Back in 2010, I prepared a display to honour the late Bobby Stewart as part of the “Tribute to Bobby Stewart Night” at the Downs.

Jockey, Bobby Stewart Fast Facts:

Rode a total of 724 winners at Assiniboia Downs over his career from 1960 to 1976. In 1970 Bobby became the Downs all time leading jockey when he surpassed Dick Armstrong’s career win total of 478. His record of 724 lifetime wins at ASD would stand until 1981 when Jimmy Anderson won his 725th race.  Bob won six leading rider titles at Assiniboia Downs: 1966, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971, and in 1972 he finished in a tie with Bobby Dimma.

Garylle Stewart is a great story teller and he’s got a million of them! He always wears a suit to the track and yet is most comfortable hanging around the barn with his horses. Not to mention the fact that he loves catchy sayings. Two of my favourites follow.

“You don’t have to be the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral.”

I mention the above quote because it’s one that Stewart seems to live by. He’s certainly not one to be looking for glory or special accolades. Come to think of it, he’s probably not going to care for the fact that I’m even telling the A.P. halter story.

Another saying of his is, “I’ll see ya when the big horse wins.”  He really likes that one!

Murray Duncan and Garylle Stewart like to smile.

Murray Duncan and Garylle Stewart like to smile.

The plan we discussed would see him bid on the halter and if successful, donate it to Assiniboia Downs. The historic piece would be put on display in the Racing Through Time area (located just inside the entrance way on the main floor). The halter display would feature a yet to be agreed upon sign indicating that it was donated to the Downs in memory of his brother Bob.

I couldn’t have been more thrilled when Stewart said he was “very” interested. It was perfect! The money was going to a great cause, the Alyssa Selman Fund and it gave Stewart the opportunity to pay tribute to his brother Bobby, who passed May 3, 1985.

Fast forward to the auction which ran on eBay from August 20 to 30, 2015.

Stewart entered the auction with less than 30 seconds to go. His first bid, $6,900 (USD) easily bettered the previous bid of $6,101.

The bid held for a full 17 seconds, when a competing bid of $7,000 was received.  With less than 10 seconds left in the auction, Stewart entered what would turn out to be his final bid $7,400, but at this point it wasn’t so much a bidding war as it was a lottery. The top bid came with less than five seconds left in the auction, from what appeared to be a professional eBay bidder who made this his first and only bid the winning one at $7,600.

Just missed! The halter of Triple Crown winner American Pharoah.

Just missed! The halter of Triple Crown winner American Pharoah.

From the world of Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda, it was over — missed it by “that” much!   And Stewart’s loss that day sadly became ours.

I admit I was disappointed. It would have been fantastic to have been able to display such a piece of horse racing history at our own Assiniboia Downs, and at the same time pay homage to Bobby Stewart. For the record, and not that anybody asked, but Bobby Stewart was probably the best jockey to ever put his feet in the stirrups at the Downs.

Our friend from Fargo is battling some health issues these days, so he isn’t sure when he’ll be making the trip north to the “Peg” this season. We wish him well and know that his interests will be well-represented when his daughter Audrey joins the Duncan clan for some good old fashioned summer racing at the Downs.

The coup to acquire the halter of all halters may have fallen short, but it was a valiant effort from a man I respect.  Thanks Gary, your friends at the Downs appreciate your efforts. Brother Bob would have been proud!

Wishing you much improved health and we look forward to seeing you…

“When the big horse wins!”