Assiniboia Downs Kicks Off Season #63 of Live Racing

May 20, 2020 | ASD History, Live Horse Racing

Milestones & Memories

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II at the 1970 Manitoba Centennial Derby
Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II at the 1970 Manitoba Centennial Derby

by Bob Gates

Welcome to the new “normal” as the Downs makes the final preparations to open for its inaugural “No Fans In The Stands” 2020 race meet. We have all lived the events of this spring and heaven knows they don’t need rehashing. So let’s move on and explore all things historical, shall we?

It gets no better than having the “little track that could” lead the way by becoming the first in Canada to open for business since the global pandemic mothballed everything in sight in mid-March. Before all things evil hit the fan, season #63 was poised to celebrate several milestones. 

Assiniboia Downs has now operated in eight different decades and its all-time leading trainer Gary Danelson has been an active participant in seven of them.  Only global pandemic travel restrictions prevented Gary from making his usual trip to the Downs this spring, but don’t worry, the good Lord willing he’ll be back next year to make it a perfect eight for eight.

L to R: Jack Stafford, Pierre-Louis Levesque, Jean Louis-Levesque, Ron-Turcotte, John Mooney and Yonnie Starr

1920 – 100 years ago: Elmbank, Ontario-born Robert James Speers moved from Wilkie Saskatchewan to Winnipeg to become involved in the livestock feeding business. Two years later Speers took over a three-year lease at River Park. 

1930 – 90 years ago: The Manitoba Derby was inaugurated in 1930 by Jim Speers and was run in Winnipeg for 11 years. In 1941 the race was renamed the Canadian Derby, which was run at Polo Park racetrack until it closed in 1956, the same year Speers founded the Winnipeg Futurity. 

1940 – 80 years ago: The final Manitoba Derby was run at Polo Park racetrack. 

1960 – 60 years ago: The Manitoba Derby was resurrected by Jack Hardy, whose JY Stable won the Derby with Bocage.

1970 – 50 years ago: The Manitoba Derby was run on Manitoba’s 100th birthday on July 15, 1970 and was known as The Manitoba Centennial Derby. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth ll and her family were special guests of Jack Hardy with the Queen donating her “Cup”, which has been presented to the winner of the race ever since.   

1980 – 40 years ago: Trainer Clayton Gray won his seventh leading trainer title at the Downs. Clayton was the track’s first trainer to reach the 300- and 400-win plateau. The man from Dominion City won a total of 600 races during his 30-season career at the Downs.     

Kaufy Buzz wins Don Gray Memorial on May, 12, 2019

1990 – 30 years ago: Trainer Tom Dodds set a new single season record for wins by a trainer when he won 78 races.  

2010 – 10 years ago: On December 22, Darren Dunn was named Chief Executive Officer of Assiniboia Downs with Sharon Gulyas appointed Vice President of Finance and Gaming.

The Final Furlong organization was founded on May 1, 2010 and continues to do great things for thoroughbreds who are retiring from the racetrack.


A lot has transpired since my final blog story last year. I’m saddened to tell you of the passing of a couple of champions who called the Downs home. Charlie Smith and Terry Propps lost Miss Missile last fall and Ed and Joyce Pawluk’s Smoky Cinder left the Pawluk pasture for the last time this past January. A multiple stakes winner, Miss Missile was only 14, while graded stakes-placed Smoky had reached the ripe age of 26.

Smoky Cinder in the post parade for the 1997 Manitoba Derby. Tom Adkins in the saddle.

As always, the first race of the season bears the name of the late, great trainer, Don Gray, who passed on Christmas Day 1993. This year marks the 27th running of the Don Gray Memorial. 

On a final note the “no fans in the stands” season would never have come to pass without the herculean effort of the Manitoba Jockey Club and the management and staff of Assiniboia Downs, led by the unflappable Darren Dunn.  Thanks Darren, you and your team did an unbelievable job and we are all so grateful!    

… and that’s all for this week – opening day, with empty stands, is Monday, May 25, post time is 7:30 p.m.