Memories of Hall of Famer Irwin Driedger

Jun 2, 2023 | ASD History

Irwin in the winner's circle at ASD with Astral Moon in 1979.

Irwin in the winner’s circle at Assiniboia Downs with Astral Moon in 1979.

by Bob Gates

One of the many rewards of writing the history blog is meeting a lot of good people from the sport we all love. Getting to know Irwin Driedger easily sits near the top of that list. While we never met in person, we spoke several times over the last 10 years. Once again, social media (Facebook) and emails have been a friend.

As you have all heard by now, on Saturday, May 20, 2023 Irwin lost his courageous battle with cancer. Truth is, it came as a shock, but not a surprise. In January 2022 Irwin told me of his health issues and shared details of the treatments he was undergoing.

The historian in me wanted to tell the story of his fight to defeat the evil cancer, but he was a private person and didn’t want his illness made public. A request that I honoured, until now.

Understanding the kind of person he was, and with us having no true personal history, I was humbled that he trusted me with something as private as his health.

Irwins set a single-season record in 1981 that will never be broken at Assiniboia Downs with 214 wins.

Irwins set a single-season record in 1981 that will never be broken at Assiniboia Downs with 214 wins.

Since learning of his death, I knew a blog story was a must, but struggled with the best approach to follow. His records and milestones have been reported everywhere these days, so they need not be repeated. However, duty requires that at least some facts be shared. Here’s a few chosen achievements he recorded at his home track, Assiniboia Downs.

From 1973 to 1982, Driedger rode 981 winners at the Downs – good enough for eighth place on the Downs Top 10 All-Time Leading Jockey Board.  The seven riders who had more career wins here all rode in anywhere from 14 to 33 meets compared to Irwin’s nine. There’s no doubt that he would have re-wrote the Downs’ record books had he not moved on. In addition, he won four consecutive leading jockey titles (1979, 80, 81 and 82), only Bobby Stewart has more.

Yes, he left us to ride down east following the 1982 season at the Downs, but who can blame him? It all boils down to economics. In 1981 he won 214 races here and $800,000 in purses. In 1984 he won 111 races in the east for purses that totalled $1.6 million.

Irwin’s win total of 214 in 1981 is a record for the ages. Our current 50-day meetings are not going to permit any rider to challenge this feat. Even in the longer meets of the late ‘70s, through the early ‘90s, his closest rival was Brian Bochinski, but even Brian’s 178 wins in 1990 was still 36 victories back.

Irwin in the winner's circle after his victory in the 1983 Manitoba Derby aboard Gone To Royalty.

Irwin in the winner’s circle after his victory in the 1983 Manitoba Derby aboard Gone To Royalty.

Irwin won his one and only Manitoba Derby in 1983 aboard Gone to Royalty, but don’t be tempted to minimize his lone victory in the Derby. No less than eight other Downs leading riders were held to a solitary Derby win and it’s an impressive list:

Jockey Year Horse
Dick Armstrong 1969 Fire’N Desire
Bobby Stewart 1972 Nice Dancer
Todd Kabel 1989 Rough Catch
Larry Bird 1999 Royal Frolic
Travis Hightower 2006 Prime Time T.V.
Alan Cuthbertson 2008 Matt’s Broken Vow
Paul Nolan 2012 Balooga Bull
Jorge Carreno 2022 Red Knobs

Tidbits that Irwin shared:

Astral MoonAstral Moon was a very talented race mare, really nice to ride.  Billy Grohn would get her ready at his farm every spring by pulling a standardbred buggy, only racehorse that I know of to get fit like that. She would watch everything around her, and it always seemed to me she would clock the competition. She was built like a colt, very stocky and powerful.

Being “pinned” on the railSome jocks don’t like the inside because they are intimidated. You get a lot of kickback on the rail on a dirt track, and it can hurt quite a bit depending on the track surface. You can get away from it on the outside. I always liked the turf because you received no kickback and horses would run truer to their ability. It can also be used as an excuse for why my horse did not run well. It has been used for decades.

Use of WhipsIn my honest opinion, jockeys need to carry a crop. Horses in general have a short attention span. A lot of them need encouragement to keep running when making the lead in a race. At the least if a jockey was only allowed to slap the horse on the shoulder while still maintaining his/her hands on the line would work, I think. We need to take away the view of the overhand crop which the general public does not want to see in this day and age. I think we do need to change.

RetirementI retired in 1990. I had never intended to ride for more than 20 years. I had to reduce all the time and that took it’s toll. It took the fun out of it for me, and it got to the point where I just did not want to do it anymore. No regrets.

Irwin confessed to be a regular reader of the history blog, something that made me proud.  I hadn’t heard from him since late last summer, so I sent him an email this past January. I never heard back and that was troubling. Irwin always got back to me. I hoped for the best and feared the worst.

A few weeks ago, Irwin was named to the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame class of 2023 and will be inducted posthumously this August.

Our sincere condolences go out to Irwin’s family and many friends.

Rest in peace, Irwin and…

Thank you for your friendship.

Irwin Diedger aboard champion One and Only at Assiniboia Downs in 1982.

Irwin aboard champion One and Only at Assiniboia Downs in 1982.