Race Programs: Portals to the Past

May 30, 2024 | ASD History

by Track Historian Bob Gates

How about something just a little different this go around? Our subject this week is race programs of the past, but not just any old programs.  Those that follow are special in their own way and with one exception are from my private collection. We’ll get to that exception in a bit.

Programs tell the history of racing’s past in a way that is somewhat unique.  Over the years they have been as mistreated as any piece of memorabilia and probably more. There was a time where at the end of a typical day of racing they were just some of the garbage that littered the grounds of old River Park, Whittier Park, Polo Park and Assiniboia Downs.

One hundred years later, they are sought after by collectors as valuable pieces of memorabilia. True racing enthusiasts hold a daily race program in high regard, for within its covers lies a treasure trove of information from another time.

Through the years the basic styles haven’t differed all that much, but each offers its own glimpse into the days of yore.  Well, let’s not waste any more time, and get to the stars of this week’s story – the daily racing program:


River Park: June 30, 1923 – Price: 10 cents

This program has a great back story. Hard to imagine that it’s more than 100 years old. It was given to me by Albert Edward “Bert” Blake in 2009. I remember asking if he would consider selling it. To which he was quick to say “No” and after a pregnant pause added “but I’ll give it to you.” I’m not sure why, but Mr. Blake seemed to like me. Talk about being overwhelmed. His generosity left me speechless! This program is one that speaks for itself.  Do any of the names in the sixth race sound familiar?



Polo Park: September 10, 1927 – Price: 15 cents (includes past performances)

 On the face of it, this appears to be nothing other than a very old program, but its story runs deep. September 10, 1927 was the fateful day that Earl “Sandy” Graham was injured when his horse, Vesper Lad went down during the running of the first race. Graham languished in the Winnipeg General Hospital for 12 days before succumbing to his injuries on September 22. You’ll notice that the program did not yet list the jockeys.


Whittier Park: September 14, 1935 – Price: 15 cents (includes past performances) 

This is the program that I do not own. A good friend of the Downs, Larry Reid was kind enough to donate it to our collection of historical racing artifacts. It just so happens that jockey Johnny Longden won the last race, giving him four wins on the card. 

Longden retired from racing in 1966, but not before racking up 6,032 career wins, which at that time was more than any other rider in thoroughbred horse racing.  Longden won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes twice, and a Belmont Stakes to go with them, in a career which saw him win the American Triple Crown in 1943 aboard Count Fleet.


Polo Park: July 4, 1956 – Price: 20 cents (includes past performances)

This is the program from the final day of racing when Polo Park closed its doors on July 4, 1956. There would be no racing in Winnipeg until Assiniboia Downs opened on June 10, 1958.


 Assiniboia Downs: June 10, 1958 – Price: 25 cents (includes past performances)

Here’s the very first program from opening day at Assiniboia Downs on June 10, 1958. Hopefully the name Gold Ern in Race 1 will be familiar to you, as the first horse to find the winner’s circle at the Downs.

 Assiniboia Downs: July 15, 1970 – Price: 35 cents

What can you say about this one?  It’s not everyday that royalty visits the Downs. Who knew? This marked the only time the Queen visited a Canadian racetrack other than Woodbine


Assiniboia Downs: July 14, 1982 – Price: $1.00 (includes past performances)

I believe this program to be one of the rarer ones from our west end oval. The July 14 card never happened. Downs’ owner Michael Gobuty and the provincial government were engaged in a war of wills. The result was almost unthinkable, but the inevitable happened at 1:00 p.m. on July 14, 1982, when Assiniboia Downs closed its doors and went into receivership. It would re-open nine days later under the management of Jim Wright. 

Most of the artifacts I collect are local pieces, but our final two programs are not. They are just so special that they have to be shared.


Churchill Downs: May 2, 1964 – Price: 25 cents

First up is the 1964 Kentucky Derby program which features the Canadian-bred winner, Northern Dancer.  Special enough?


Woodbine: October 28, 1973 – Price: 35 cents

Our last program is from the Canadian International Championship Stakes complete with an uncashed mutuel ticket. The mighty Secretariat’s last race, nothing else need be said.

I have been asked what these programs are worth? Truth is, I have no idea and I’ve never tried to put a value on them. Why? How do you put a price on a portal to the past. Fact is, they aren’t for sale and never will be, at least not as long as they are in my possession. I cannot fathom the circumstances that would see me sell them. Simply said, NFS!      

I hope you have enjoyed this week’s visual presentation of our journey…

To racetracks from the past.