A Starter’s Nightmare

Jun 30, 2023 | ASD History

Buster Jeffrey at the ASD gate, circa 1970.

Buster Jeffrey at the ASD gate, circa 1970.

by Bob Gates

The place? Old Polo Park Racetrack, right here in River City.

The date? Thursday, June 16, 1955.

The occasion? One of the strangest days in the history of local horse racing.

They had finished four of the seven races that were carded for the 11th day of racing at the Winnipeg Jockey Club’s 14-day meeting on an otherwise perfect June evening.

The weather was pretty much all that was “perfect” that Thursday. The fourth race was declared “Official” and racing officials could be seen running for the exits screaming “uncle.”  Well, perhaps that’s an exaggeration, but they were ready to call it a day. They had witnessed enough equine craziness to last a lifetime.

And they're off! Horses break from the gate in 1981 at ASD!

And they’re off! Horses break from the gate in 1981 at ASD!

Clearly there was something in the Kool-Aid that day, and everyone, including the horses had dipped their cup into the punch bowl one too many times. Cryptic enough start to this week’s flashback in time? Here’s the story of the day the “circus” came to Polo Park.

The racing gods wasted little time and saw to it that the hijinks started in the first race. The #10 horse, Sea Struck, wanted no part of the race and unceremoniously dumped jockey Bob Gaffglione in the post parade, circled the racing oval, going about six furlongs, and lost any chance he had of running in race one. Sea Struck was scratched, requiring a refund of all monies wagered on him.

Loose horse in 2022. Doesn't look much different than a loose horse in 1955.

Loose horse in 2022. Doesn’t look much different than a loose horse in 1955.

In the same race, Malacara, horse #7, took his cue from Sea Struck, unseating rider Willie Marsh Jr., ran a couple hundred yards, jumped the rail and headed for the barns. Officials reunited Marsh with his mount and were satisfied that he was fit to race. By the way, once the real race was underway Malacara was running second at the quarter pole but finished a dismal eighth in the “revised” field of nine.

Race three also proved interesting. How could it not? What could possibly go wrong in a field of 2-year-old maidens in June?

Horse #5, Egar Stanton, with Willie Marsh Jr. in the irons, was acting up in the gate. He had it in his mind that he deserved a head start and tried to go under the gate. Turns out that didn’t work all that well and the starter’s crew had to open the doors to free the horse who was stuck under the gate. However, as soon as they opened the doors, Egar “broke loose and ran away.”  Following his half-mile solo dash, he was ordered scratched, meaning yet another refund.  When the field of nine was sent off moments later, first-time-starter Alder Kid, no sooner got out of the gate and refused to run — no refund on this boy.

Race four would prove to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. In the days of Whittier and Polo Park, starters were better known as “commencers.”  These are the men responsible for getting the fairest start possible for a group of highly- excitable, one thousand-pound plus thoroughbreds.

In the gate. 1979 at ASD.

In the gate. 1979 at ASD.

This task is tough at the best of times and on a day of racing that more resembled a three-ring-circus, it isn’t a profession for the faint of heart. We can’t be sure what constitutes a starter’s nightmare, but the fourth race at Polo had to be close.

On this day, the commotion in and around the starting gate seemed worse than usual. Apparently, the frolicking behind the gate in the fourth race 10-horse-field caught the usually sharp starter George Dunn off guard.

When Dunn pulled the latch to send the field on its away, #10 Viquest with veteran rider Jimmy Fitzsimmons had not yet been loaded. Officials had no choice but to scratch the 9-year-old mare and order another refund for all monies wagered on her.

Racing officials and the media were kind to Dunn, who was considered one of the best starters, not just locally, or in Canada, but in all of North America. Hard to imagine how Dunn felt about the ordeal, no comments, quotes or interviews could be found in the sports pages of the local print media.

Unusual occurrences at the races happen and on June 16, 1955, they all came together to create a special kind of chaos that could drive a starter to …

Culinary school, perhaps!?

In addition to his many duties around Assiniboia Downs, our own Derek Corbel has been starting races at the Downs for almost 25 years. You just know he could write a book!

Ralph Kitching (left) and Doug Mustard.

Ralph Kitching (left) and Doug Mustard.

In closing, how about a shout-out to a couple of special racetrackers. First up is 80-years-young Doug Mustard, who has owned and trained his own horses, and before that helped with his father’s horses, dating back to when the Downs opened in 1958, never missing a year!

Next, there’s Ralph Kitching the “elder” horseman of Assiniboia Downs. Mr Kitching is 93-years-young and has been racing horses here since 1970!

Well done gents and thank you!