A Man and his Horse: The Tale of “Slim” Keith & Contributor

Jun 13, 2019 | ASD History

1941 Western Canada Handicap. Contributor (#3) finishes second on the rail.

1941 Western Canada Handicap. Contributor (#3) finishes second on the rail.

by Bob Gates

“Someday, in the future, when a historian begins to record the story of western racing there will be a chapter for gallant little Joey – the Duchess of York – for Help Yourself and Yorkie Prince – for Madgu Don and for the men who, fired with their love of the thoroughbred, kept the sport alive through the lean years and saw their dream of western Canada as a racing country come true.

But when that book is written one chapter will be the story of a man and a horse… easy-going quiet-spoken ‘Slim’ Keith of Calgary and a big chestnut stallion named Contributor.”

~ Maurice Smith, Winnipeg Free Press, June 2, 1944

After stumbling across the above article why would you take a pass on the tale of Slim and Contributor?

From 1937 to 1939 Contributor was owned by Calgary, oil man J. V. “Jack” Drumheller. but he only knew one trainer, M. “Slim” Keith.  Big Red was a western-bred through and through, a superior mudder and even raced against the legendary Joey.

A notoriously slow starter, it took Contributor a little longer than most to find his stride. His signature move was to come charging from the cheap seats in the rush to the wire.

The hard-knocking stallion held his own in the handicap ranks. He was a regular entrant in races such as the Polo Park and Whittier Park handicaps, the Speers, the Western Canada Handicap and the President’s handicap, and he never embarrassed himself.

In the fall of 1939, Keith bought the 4-year-old Contributor from Drumheller and took him east for a few more races before bedding him down for the winter.  Contributor and Keith were a team, always getting just enough from the purses to keep comfortable. They were never without each other, but then the unthinkable happened.

The thing is this all took place long ago, so I think it’s best if we let Vern DeGeer, sports editor for the Toronto Globe and Mail describe the events as he wrote them 80 years ago.

“Slim Keith, a hard-bitten son of western Canada racetracks, leaned over the infield rail at Dufferin Park the other afternoon and pondered the fates that had divorced him from his pride and joy – the 4-year-old colt Contributor. It wasn’t that Contributor was the one and only representative of the ‘Keith Stables,’ but it happened that here was an animal that was closer to Slim’s heart than his lean ribs.

Keith had shipped Contributor to Thorncliffe in September for the four weeks’ fall programme in Toronto. The colt won a race in the mud at Woodbine and another at Long Branch in nine starts.

Early this week Slim entered Contributor for $1,000 in a race at Dufferin, little dreaming that any person had designs on a colt whose racing value was no great shucks except in the mind and heart of his trainer. But Art Halliwell got him via the claiming box. And Slim Keith became a sad, sad horseman. It was pointed out to Keith by friends that he was well rid of the horse; that he couldn’t sell him for $1,000 in these rough days; and it would cost money to ship him back west when Dufferin closed; and it would cost plenty to winter him. Slim’s heart still ached – the love of a man for a horse.

The story of Keith was relayed to Halliwell by R. J. Speers, prominent prairie race owner and track official. Art was a sympathetic listener. He hadn’t known that Keith was on a one-horse trainer when he put in the claim. ‘Keith will be taken care of’ Art declared.

Last Friday Contributor was entered at Dufferin for $1,350 in the sixth race, and at Art’s suggestion, Keith claimed him back. At the same time Art presented Keith with a cheque for $350 – which meant that Slim had his Contributor again without losing a dime.  And it cost Art the $10 jockey fee to enter the colt last Friday so Keith could claim him back.

Today Slim Keith is on his way to the prairies with the light of his life, Contributor – and everybody’s happy again – thanks to sportsman Art Halliwell.”

Contributor hated to lose. This was never more evident than on June 20, 1942 in the prestigious Western Canada Handicap at Polo Park racetrack. Let’s pick up the form chart call in the stretch with Chief Richie leading them home:

“Chief Richie began tiring in the last seventy yards and was doing his best to stall off Contributor. The latter trailed for seven furlongs came around the field entering the stretch, gained rapidly in the last sixteenth but bore over badly and attempted to savage Chief Richie. He would undoubtedly have been the winner but for bearing in.”

Contributor, second on the outside prepares to take a nip out of Chief Richie. June 20, 1942. Polo Park Racetrack.

Contributor, second on the outside prepares to take a nip out of Chief Richie. June 20, 1942. Polo Park Racetrack.

Yes, you heard it right, Contributor was taking matters into his own hands, well, teeth actually, and had tried to take a piece out of Chief Richie. Reports have it that this was not the first time he tried pulling that stunt. The chestnut son of Token and Pop Shot who hailed from Calgary had spunk and usually represented himself well when he “kept his teeth in his mouth and his mind on his race running.”

Contributor didn’t always make history, but he was there for a lot of it. He was even a part of D-Day folklore. On Tuesday June 6, 1944 the Winnipeg Tribune carried the announcement that Jim Speers had called off the races scheduled for Polo Park on account of the Normandy invasion. The article went on to report on Monday’s races, where Contributor had finished second in the Stockyard Handicap losing by a “scant head” to Jo Johansen’s Amsterson. Yes sir, that was 75 years ago. Contributor and Slim go way back!

When the chestnut stallion turned 10 in 1945, he found himself wallowing in claiming races and finding it tough to compete against competition he would have considered grossly inferior to a horse of his caliber. He took 1946 off and tried to make a go of it at age 12 in 1947.

Low and behold, he had one final win left in the tank that came on June 24, 1947 when he beat a rag-tag assortment of non-winners at old Polo Park.

As the 1947 season wound down, Contributor’s name gradually disappeared from the racing news. Slim and Big Red were inseparable in life and I suspect it wasn’t long after they were gone that they again formed a special bond that comes when a man and his horse become one for all-time.

I am indebted to the late Maurice Smith, who became the sports editor for the Winnipeg Free Press in 1944, for his article which was the inspiration for the tale of Slim and Contributor. “Smitty” passed in 1985 and I will end this story with another one of his quotes:

“Big Red in his own right is worthy of praise, but the combination of Contributor and Slim Keith is “copy” of the type that makes the sport of kings the colorful sport it is throughout the world.”

So, we are left to wonder…

Who will that historian write about 75 years from now?