Assiniboia Downs: Eight Decades and Counting

Jun 17, 2022 | ASD History

by Bob Gates

“And Now for Something Completely Different” was a catchphrase from the British television comedy series Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and it just happens to be perfect for this week’s blog.

This isn’t your typical history story, at least it’s not what you’ve grown accustomed to. What we have this week is an assortment of photos that have been carefully selected to highlight the history of Assiniboia Downs through the eight different decades of its existence.

It’s been said that a picture is worth a thousand words. If that’s the case, this is going to be the longest, but shortest blog story I’ve done since I started writing “my stories” in 2012.

Yes sir, with 10 years and 195 stories under my belt, it’s time to change things up. Below are eight photos that depict the history of our Portage Avenue track, one for each decade, and a bonus photo – just because.

Photo #1 – The 1950s (1958 & 1959)
June 10, 1958 – Opening Day at Assiniboia Downs

Gold Ern with young apprentice jockey Dick Armstrong wins the first race on the first ever day of racing at the Downs. Armstrong is pictured here receiving a gift from track owner Jack Hardy and his wife Yvette to mark the occasion. (Assiniboia Downs Historical Photo)

Photo #2 – The 1960s
June 18, 1963 – Tommy Stadnyk Day at the Downs

The sixth race on the card was named in honor of Winnipeg-born jockey Tom Stadnyk, who had ridden more winners (212) than any other rider in the young history of the Downs. The race winner was JY Stable’ s (owner Jack Hardy) Bala Roman, who had a young apprentice in the saddle by the name of Ron Turcotte. Turcotte was not “just” another apprentice, he was the leading rider in Canada in 1962. With the Belmont Stakes now in the books for another year, this photo selection seemed to be a natural – Ron’s Secretariat fame would follow 11 years later. (Assiniboia Downs Historical Photo)

Photo #3 – The 1970s
July 15, 1970 – Manitoba Centennial Derby

Manitoba was celebrating its centenary and the 22nd running of the Manitoba Derby was, for this year, known as the Manitoba Centennial Derby. To mark the occasion Her Royal Majesty, Queen Elizabeth ll, her husband the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Charles and Princess Anne, were on hand for our Derby. Her Majesty is front and center with Jack Hardy and the race winner, Fanfreluche with Ron Turcotte in the irons. If you look carefully, you’ll notice the Winnipeg Tribune’s Harold Loster on the track just over the hind quarters of “Fanny.” (Gerry Hart Photo)

Photo #4 – The 1980s
July 1, 1981 – Canada Day Handicap – Intercontinent

The annual Canada Day Handicap always attracted the best horses on the grounds and 1981 was no exception. Phil Kives’ Intercontinent and Amerada Stable’s Major Enterprise met for the fourth time that season. Sadly, for the Major, the results were the same, with Intercontinent getting to the wire first. Here is a great post-race shot of Intercontinent with his regular rider Kenny “Hank” Hendricks. By the way, Hendricks, always the “money” jock, is the Downs all-time leading rider with 1,666 victories. (Gerry Hart Photo)

Photo #5 – The 1990s
October 5, 1997 – Ardell Sayler Wins Second of 12 Training Titles

Trainer Ardell Sayler wins his second leading trainer title, his first coming in 1994. Sayler would go on to top the trainer standings a total of 12 times, a Downs’ record before his untimely death on May 26, 2019. Sayler amassed 1,321 career wins, with 1,190 coming right here at the Downs. He also co-holds the record for most trainer wins on a card (five) with Gilbert Ducharme. Sayler’s five-bagger came May 10, 2014, matching Ducharme’s feat from October 9, 1985. (Gerry Hart Photo)

Photo #6 – The 2000s
August 10, 2004 – Gary Danelson Scores Win #1,000 at Downs

Trainer Gary Danelson scored win #1,000 win at the Downs when Brass Ruler romped home in the seventh race on the card. Gary is currently the Downs’ all-time leading trainer with 1,234 wins. The man from Scobey Montana was 22 years old when he scored the first win of his career at the Downs on August 29, 1959, with his first ever horse, Coherence. Gary celebrates his 85th birthday this August. Happy Birthday Gary! (Gerry Hart Photo)

Photo #7 – The 2010s
August 7, 2017 – Plentiful Wins Manitoba Derby

The above shot is from the 2017 Manitoba Derby and talk about a storybook ending. The horse, Plentiful was owned by trainer Murray Duncan and his lifelong friend Garylle Stewart, and was claimed at Oaklawn Park with thoughts of a possible Derby win. Gary and Murray were friends from way back and had only just gotten back into the racing game in 2010. They had fun with their horses, but Gary’s health deteriorated, and he passed on Derby Day 2016. One year later, Murray and the Estate of his friend had their Derby horse and Plentiful ran like the champion everyone knew he could be.

The photo shows Plentiful early in the race just where he likes to be, on the inside, and the rest is history. Plentiful won as he pleased and paid $23.40 to win, perhaps with some help from above? (Jason Halstead Photo)

Photo #8 – The 2020s
May 17, 2021 – No Fans in the Stands

For the second consecutive year, in 2021 the Downs went forward with another season of “No Fans in the Stands.” The picture says it all, no other words are necessary. (Jason Halstead Photo)

Photo #9 – Bonus Photo
From 1940 – Joey at Whittier Park

This is probably the best photo ever of any thoroughbred you’re likely to see. The horse is Joey, and he knew how to pose! The shot was taken at old Whittier Park racetrack in 1940. Joey was a champion whose career spanned 10 years from 1932 to 1941. He was a little horse who won 22% of his races, finished in the money a whopping 58% of the time, and won multiple stakes. Following a brief retirement Joey passed on August 15, 1941. Joey was a winner, even in death. I’m told that in 1944, when the shoes of famous racehorses were sold to raise money for Victory Bonds, Seabiscuit’s brought $10,000, Whirlaway’s $6,500, and Joey’s? An astonishing $40,000! (Trevenen Family Photo)

Well, there you have it. I hope you enjoyed the photos as much as I did picking them out. Talk about a “fool’s errand!” What was I thinking? It wasn’t a lot different than trying to pick your favorite Monty Python sketch: “Dead Parrot,” The Lumberjack Song,” “Upper Class Twit of the Year,” and the always popular “Nudge Nudge.”

Here’s to the next decade of writing about…

The history of Assiniboia Downs.