Assiniboia Downs Celebrates 75th Running of the Manitoba Derby

Aug 4, 2023 | ASD History

by Bob Gates

It has been more than 90 years in the making but on Monday August 7, the Manitoba Jockey Club will roll out the 75th Running of the $125,000 Manitoba Derby.

The road to the historic 75th has had many twists and turns, but we’ve made it relatively unscathed. There’s been a few bumps along the way but on Monday evening when starter Derek Corbel sends this year’s Derby field on its way, it will be the 75th time the Manitoba classic has gone to post!

The 75th? Let’s see, that means the first Derby had to be run in 1949. How does that work? The Downs opened for business in 1958, this is the Downs 66th season of operation, and Jack Hardy resurrected the Derby in 1960. No worries, it all works out.

Jack Whittier. Winner of the first Manitoba Derby at Polo Park in 1930.

Jack Whittier. Winner of the first Manitoba Derby at Polo Park in 1930.

The first Derby run at the Downs in 1960 was actually the 12th Running. So a quick check of the math reveals that, including this year, the Downs will have hosted 64 editions of the race. The other 11? Perhaps it’s time for a little history.

The first Manitoba Derby was run in 1930, although from 1930 to 1933 it was known as the Manitoba Stakes. It should come as no surprise that Manitoba’s most prestigious race was the brainchild of Robert James Speers, the acknowledged Father of Thoroughbred Racing in the prairie provinces. Speers established the race so that horse people could showcase their 3-year-old thoroughbreds foaled in western Canada.

The Derby was opened to all horses bred in Canada in 1936. The race was run annually at Polo Park Racetrack, with the exception of 1937, when it was held at Whittier Park in St. Boniface. In 1941 the name of the race was changed to the Canadian Derby.

Few people realize that the heart and soul of the Canadian Derby can be found in Winnipeg and that the Canadian Derby was actually born out of the Manitoba Derby. At the time, Canada was the only major country that did not have a national Derby, so R. J. Speers sacrificed the Manitoba moniker for a national name.

The Canadian Derby was run at Polo Park Racetrack until it closed in 1956, and the race was relocated to Edmonton. Jack Hardy tried to bring the race back to Winnipeg when Assiniboia Downs opened in 1958, but was unsuccessful, and the Canadian Derby remained in Edmonton.

Zaca Spirit (Richard Grubb up). Winner of the 25th Manitoba Derby. 1973.

Zaca Spirit (Richard Grubb up). Winner of the 25th Manitoba Derby. 1973.

In 1960, the Manitoba Derby and its storied past from 11 previous runnings (1930-1940) was resurrected, and Assiniboia Downs has hosted the race ever since. In 1985 the Manitoba Derby was changed to an open event for all 3-year-old thoroughbreds. To date, three Manitoba-breds have won the race, beginning with Gowerlace in 1938. It took almost 40 years for the next homebred, Merry’s Jay, to win the Manitoba Derby in 1976, and Royal Frolic followed with his popular victory in 1993.

On July 15, 1970, Assiniboia Downs played host to the royal family when Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II attended the Manitoba Centennial Derby, along with her husband Prince Phillip, daughter Princess Anne, and son, the future King Charles, to present the Queen’s Cup to the winning connections. The 1970 Manitoba Derby marked the first time the trophy, donated by Her Majesty, was presented for the annual competition.

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II at Assiniboia Downs for the 1970 Manitoba Derby.

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II at Assiniboia Downs for the 1970 Manitoba Derby.

The list of previous Manitoba Derby winners includes national and local champions such as Fanfreluche, Overskate and Merry’s Jay; and owners Jean Louis Levesque, Bob and Bill Mitchell, and Phil Kives’ K5 Stables. Hall of Fame jockeys Sandy Hawley, Julie Krone and Robin Platts are but a few of the riding greats who have won the Manitoba Derby.

Gil Rowntree, A. E. “Bert” Blake, Yonnie Starr and Roger Attfield are among the trainers with multiple wins in the big race, but conditioner Robertino Diodoro holds the record with four Manitoba Derby wins (2018, 2019, 2021, 2022). In addition, Diodoro established another enviable record in 2022, when his horses finished first, second and third in Manitoba’s most prestigious race.

Manitoba Derby Trophy. The Queen's Cup.

Manitoba Derby Trophy. The Queen’s Cup.

Not that there was any need to add to the Derby hoopla, but this year there is an added feature. The 2023 Western Canadian Triple Crown connects the $125,000 Manitoba Derby, the $200,000 Canadian Derby in Alberta and the $125,000 British Columbia Derby. In addition to $450,000 in purse money, there will be an additional $100,000 bonus should one horse win all three of the prestigious Derby events.

This week Assiniboia Downs salutes all of its Derby participants, past and present who have made our Manitoba Derby what it is today!

Just think, only 25 more years until the race celebrates its centenary in 2048.

See you there!

Manitoba Derby Trophy 1884-1934.

Manitoba Derby Trophy 1884-1934.