Secret Weapons and Other 50-year-old Memories of Nice Dancer

Aug 5, 2022 | ASD History

1972 Manitoba Derby winner Nice Dancer and jockey Bobby Stewart.

1972 Manitoba Derby winner Nice Dancer and jockey Bobby Stewart.

by Bob Gates

Well another Manitoba Derby is on the books and congratulations go out to the winner Red Knobs and his connections, owner Rob Nokes, trainer Robertino Diodoro and jockey Jorge Carreno.

It’s fun to look back at the list of previous winners of our Derby. Everyone has those special horses. So who makes your top 10 favourite Derby winners?

There are a number that most of us could agree upon: Fanfreluche, L’Enjoleur, Overskate. Then you can throw in a few local heroes like Merry’s Jay, Prime Time TV, and popular Balooga Bull. Before you know it, you’re well on the way to a list of 10. The challenge comes as you try to round out this group.

How many of you would include 1972’s Nice Dancer? Probably not many. Why is that? Nice Dancer doesn’t seem to get enough credit for his Derby victory, which is now a half-century old. This multiple stakes-winning son of Northern Dancer has earned his place in our history books.

There are several reasons why 50-year-old memories of Nice Dancer have surfaced this year. Sure, we all get the half-century thing, but it was this spring’s Kentucky Derby winner, Rich Strike that started it off.

Besides Rich Strike’s infamous savaging behaviour on his way to the winner’s circle to collect his roses, local racetrackers were aware that his dam, Gold Strike, was a Manitoba-bred. Yes sir, our own Tommy Dodds raised and broke Gold Strike at his farm and she was owned by Dick Bonnycastle (Harlequin Ranches).

Gold Strike's halter on display at Assiniboia Downs in the "Racing Through Time" display area.

Gold Strike’s halter on display at Assiniboia Downs in the “Racing Through Time” display area.

A $29,000 purchase, Nice Dancer was owned in partnership by Tom Morton and Dick Bonnycastle. So the common thread that holds this story together is Winnipeg-born Dick Bonnycastle.

Bonnycastle was birthed right here in “River City” in 1934 and later relocated to Calgary. He’s the former owner and publisher of Harlequin Enterprises, the world’s largest publisher of the Harlequin Romance fiction franchise.

Nice Dancer was a son of Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Queen’s Plate winner Northern Dancer and came from his famous sire’s last crop before Windfields relocated “Papa” Dancer to the United States. In addition to winning the 1972 Manitoba Derby, as a 3-year-old Nice Dancer won the Breeders’ Stakes and was third in the Prince of Wales, but had a tough Queen’s Plate. In the Plate he was part of the speed battle that set up the race for strong closer Victoria Song.  Dancer would fade to seventh.

Nice Dancer set two track records at Woodbine, one for 1 3/16-miles and the other for 1 1/8-miles.  His career record was 10 wins, 2 seconds and 3 thirds from 20 lifetime starts, with earnings of $154,825.

The plan was to see the bay colt ease into racing in his 2-year-old season. No problem there! Dancer cut himself badly when he jumped over his stall door. Once his cuts healed, he bucked his shins. So he was left out west until the fall.  After a couple of lacklustre starts at Woodbine in September 1971, he was laid up for the winter.

Heading into the 1972 Manitoba Derby, Dancer had won three of his six starts.  The Derby field was small that year, only six combatants would go to post and all six were bred in Ontario. The only western flavour to the race was Nice Dancer, who was owned jointly by Calgarians Morton and Bonnycastle.

All six horses in the Derby field had contested the Queen’s Plate, with Victoria Song winning and Gentleman Conn finishing third, while Suffix (4th), Nice Dancer (7th), Parkrangle (9th) and Tommy Jack (12th) followed.

The heavyweights on Derby Day were Victoria Song and Gentleman Conn, both of whom had arrived early and competed in the 1 1/16-mile Derby prep, the St. James-Assiniboia Handicap. Gentleman Conn won that race in convincing fashion, beating the Queen’s Plate champ by three-lengths and breaking the Downs track record for the distance in the process. As a result the Derby was setting up as a two-horse battle.

The race was run over a damp and cuppy track, but it didn’t matter to Nice Dancer. The catch phrase that comes to mind is “running loose on the lead and loving it.” Veteran jockey Bobby Stewart quickly hustled his colt to the front and was allowed to set an easy pace. When they turned for home Dancer was never challenged and had plenty left in his tank.

1972 Manitoba Derby trophy presentation. L to R: Tom Morton, Premier Ed Schreyer, Dick Bonnycastle (Harlequin Ranches) Bobby Stewart and Jerry Lavigne.

1972 Manitoba Derby trophy presentation. L to R: Tom Morton, Premier Ed Schreyer, Dick Bonnycastle (Harlequin Ranches) Bobby Stewart and Jerry Lavigne.

In the end Robin Platts on Victoria Song left the Queen’s Plate winner with “too much to do.” He closed willingly to finish second but was never a serious threat.  Gentleman Conn, on the other hand, never got a “hold” of the track and finished a disappointing fifth eight-lengths back.

Secret weapons? Nice Dancer benefited greatly from his rider, Bobby Stewart.  They say that Bobby “knew the track at the Downs like the back of his hand” and was a master of pace. Derby Day saw Bob with a virus and sporting a temperature of 102. Even a six-time leading rider could use all the help he could get that day. This Derby would prove to be Bob’s only win in the big race. More weaponry?

You bet! There was Bimbo, Nice Dancer’s “bombproof” pony. Bimbo was from Clayton Gray’s barn. How good was Bimbo? Dr. Ross McKague put it this way: “race horses run as fast as they can, Bimbo went places and did things that were counterintuitive to the horse as a species.” Perhaps Bimbo was the glue that held it all together that day.

In the latter part of 1973, Dancer broke a bone in his front foot. This spelled the end of his racing career, but he was a descendent of royalty whose owners saw a bright future for him as a sire.

Dancer stood in Canada from 1974 to 1979 and sired 76 foals, nine of which became stakes winners. In 1980, he was sent to a breeding farm in Japan, where he sired nine more stakes winners before his death at the age of 28 in 1997.

Tom Morton, Jerry Lavigne and Bobby Stewart are no longer with us. Dick Bonnycastle turns 88 this September and still calls Calgary home. He is currently dealing with some troubling health issues and we here at Assiniboia send him and his wife Kathy our best wishes.

Thanks Dick, for the sweet memories of proud “Mama” Gold Strike and…

Nice Dancer’s romp in the 24th Running of our Manitoba Derby 50 years ago.

Nice Dancer. 1972 Manitoba Derby winner.

Nice Dancer. 1972 Manitoba Derby winner.