The Stories We Leave Behind

May 23, 2024 | ASD History

By Track Historian Bob Gates

Have you ever wondered what inspires these stories from our racing’s past, a song, a smell, or perhaps even a line from a movie?  This time around it’s a quote from the CBS television series NCIS.

“We all die twice. Once when our bodies give out,
and again when our stories stop being told.

– Dr. Donald “Ducky” Mallard
Season 21, Episode 2

So let’s get to some of those memories out before they turn to dust:


1924 – 100 years ago: On June 24, Whittier Park racetrack in St. Boniface opened for business and held its inaugural meet under the direction of the Manitoba Jockey Club.

1939 – 85 years ago: Jim Speers purchased a self-enclosed starting gate for use at Whittier Park racetrack’s spring meet, which opened June 2.  Speers saw the future of the new method of starting horse races. Whittier Park boasted that it was the first time the gate was used, not just in Manitoba, but in North America.  Over the years, however, several other tracks have made this same boast.


1954 – 70 years ago: On June 17, Downs’ patriarch Albert Edward “Bert” Blake scored the first win of his training career at Polo Park Racetrack when he saddled Overdraft.


1969 – 55 years ago: On the eve of the greatest achievement in the history of mankind, the July 20 Apollo 11 moon landing with Neil Armstrong and company, Fire’ N Desire and Icy Song staged one of the finest stretch duels Assiniboia Downs has ever seen. At the wire, Dick Armstrong and Fire’ N Desire got the better of Icy Song and Avelino Gomez by the shortest of heads.  And yes, the very next day man landed on the moon – two Armstrongs making history worlds apart!


Bob Watt (tied with fellow trainer Gary Danelson) won his third of three training titles. His others came in 1964 and 1965. In 1966, Bob was the Downs’ all-time leading trainer with 82 wins. In June 1967 he saddled his 100th winner. His 200th winner came in July 1972 and his 250th in August 1976. All were firsts for Assiniboia Downs. Bob would hold the title of Downs’ all-time leading trainer until Clayton Gray took over in 1978. 

1974 – 50 years ago: On September 5, Assiniboia Downs President Jack Hardy announced that Assiniboia Downs had been sold to Calgary businessman Jim Wright.

Ken Hendricks won his first of two leading rider titles. His second title came in 1975. The man they call “Hank” is the Downs’ all-time leading jockey. In his almost 40-year career at the Downs, Hank recorded an amazing 1,685 victories at the Downs and 2,385 overall. No other rider is even close to those numbers at the Downs.

1989 – 35 years ago: It had been 13 long years since a local horse had won the Manitoba Derby, but on August 7 Rough Catch wired his seven opponents for the local ownership of Joyce Gray, Harvey Warner and Murray Bozniak. Trainer “Shorty” Gray and jockey Todd Kabel called the win the greatest thrill of their lives. 

1994 – 30 years ago: On May 8 the Manitoba Jockey Club kicked off its first season of racing after purchasing the Downs in September 1993.



Ardell Sayler won his first leading trainer title. He would add 11 more (1997, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2011, 2013, 2014) before his untimely passing on May 26, 2019. Ardell’s 12 titles are a Downs’ record. He finished his career with 1,190 wins at the Downs and 1,321 overall. 

1999 – 25 years ago: On May 11, Bob Watt passed, leaving behind a tremendous legacy. Lorraine and Bob Wright lost their mother, Hazel, on October 2. 

2004 – 20 years ago: An early morning blaze on May 17 claimed the Downs’ aging press box. The million-dollar fire destroyed the race-day operation centre, rendering racing impossible. With a whirlwind effort the Downs had a temporary press box in place and the track was up and running again on May 28.

2014 – 10 years ago: On May 10, Ardell won five races – tying the record for most wins on a single card by a trainer. He shares this distinction with Gilbert Ducharme, who accomplished the feat on October 9, 1985. Jim Wright, former owner of Assiniboia Downs and father to Bob and Lorraine, passed away on January 31.


One final thought as we put a bow on this week’s memories.  Season #67 features the return of our friend and Downs’ all-time leading trainer, Gary Danelson. The Downs has been in operation in eight different decades and Gary has been training horses here in every one of them. How about, a few Danelson highlights:

1959 – 65 years ago: On August 29 the man from Scobey, Montana was 22 years old when he won his first race as a trainer at Assiniboia Downs with his first horse Coherence. 

1969 – 55 years ago: Gary (tied with fellow trainer Bob Watt) won his first of three leading trainer titles. His other wins came in 1970 and 2003. Fast forward to May 26, 2001, when Gary saddled winner #880 to overtake the late, great Don Gray, to become the Downs’ all-time leading trainer.  

2004 – 20 years ago: Gary scored his 1,000th win at the Downs when Brass Ruler romped home. Gary is currently the Downs’ all-time leading trainer with 1,250 victories and this August he will celebrate his 87th birthday. Happy Birthday Gary! 

From riders Bobby Stewart to Todd Kabel and trainers Bob Watt to A. E. “Bert” Blake, let’s keep the memories alive…

And never stop telling their stories.