“The Inaugural” – A 45-Year History

Jul 5, 2024 | ASD History

by Track Historian Bob Gates

It’s Pop Quiz time.  Who remembers the Inaugural Handicap, the horses, riders and trainers?  Well buckle-up friends, you’re about to partake in a whirlwind tour as we look back at the history of the race most knew simply as “The Inaugural.”

The race was started when Assiniboia Downs opened in 1958.  In those early years it was known as the Inaugural Handicap and was usually run on opening day.  As time passed the race name would often be partnered with a sponsor’s name, and in 1996 until the end of its run the race honoured G. Sydney Halter.  The purse grew from $1,500 in 1958 to $30,000 for its final running on May 26, 2002.

Seven horses won the race twice. Do any of these names sound familiar? May’s Relic (1967, 1970), Ragtown Rose (1968, 1969) Astral Moon (1978, 1979), Northern Spike (1982, 1983), Rockcliffe (1984, 1985), Dandy Dundee (1993, 1996) and P.C.’s Bluff (1995, 1997). 


Ragtown Rose – May 17, 1968 – CFRW Inaugural Handicap

The race always attracted the fastest on the grounds and back in the day, they didn’t write special races for fillies and mares.  So the fairer sex went head-to-head with the boys. Of the four horses who won the race in consecutive years, Ragtown Rose and Astral Moon were mares, and tough mares at that.

Jockey Jimmy Anderson won the race four times (1966, 1975, 1976, 1977), while four other riders: Tommy Stadnyk (1959, 1960, 1961), Ken Hendricks (1988, 1993, 1996), Frank Licata (1990, 1991, 1995) and Jacques DesAutels (1980, 1999, 2001) each had three victories.

Trainer honours went to Tom Dodds with four trips to the winner’s circle while Earl Bird and Glen Ball had three. Tom’s wins all came off Stan Ryan horses and no other owner ever managed four wins.

Let’s take a closer look at a couple of the repeat winners. 

Mays Relic – May 8, 1970 – Inaugural Handicap

Who knew:  Mays Relic’s (aka Mr. Ed) great grand sire was Man O’ War.

Mr. Ed ran under Downs owner Jack Hardy’s JY Stable colours. While preferring longer races, in 1967 he came on like gangbusters in the final eighth of a mile to best a field of six.

In 1970 it appeared that May’s Relic best years were behind him. His 1969 campaign saw him running in $2,500 to $4,500 claiming races.  However, he overcame the odds to polish off some fine sprinters. The 9-year-old blaze-faced gelding (yes, the oldest runner to ever capture the Inaugural) got home in fine style and paid a tidy $36.00, $12.70, $5.60 across the board.


Astral Moon – May 6, 1979 – Inaugural Handicap

In the 1978 Inaugural, Astral Moon dominated nine competitors to win her first of two straight victories in track record time. Finishing in her wake were: Golden Answer, Island Fling, Sunraysed, Turn To Rule, Macale, Crazy Sam, Proud Chief, Persian Memories and Rediscovery.  How’s that for an impressive field? Astral Moon was a repeat winner in 1979 and had her regular rider, the late Irwin Driedger in the irons on both occasions.


Northern Spike, May 8, 1983 – Inaugural Handicap

In 1982, Dowler Brothers’ Northern Spike got up close and personal with the Downs record book. Spike set new track records for four and five furlongs, both of which still stand, and he equaled the six-furlong mark. In the May 9th Inaugural he got the better of Intercontinent, Astral Moon, Romeo Frank, and Mr Mar J Mar. In 1983, toting top weight of 124 pounds, he went gate to wire in a six-horse field. 


Rockcliffe – May 13, 1984 – Inaugural Handicap

K-5 Stables’ Rockcliffe would duplicate Spike’s performance when he won the Inaugural in 1984 and 1985. On May 20, 1984 the K-5 star was too much for second-place finisher Sing Gene Sing and third-place Major Enterprise. The following year Rockcliffe nosed out Bills Express with Red Spider, Major Enterprise, Donington and Bobby Q making up the balance of the field. The 1984 and 1985 editions of the Inaugural were trainer Don Gray’s only wins in the race.  

Who knew:  In 1983 Rockcliffe finished third in the Queen’s Plate.

The bombs-away Inaugural horse was Meadeland, who in 1971 paid $83.10 to win. The bay mare was ridden by longshot specialist Bernie Howland, and came flying home after tracking a speed-demon duel between Rangatira and Spanish Key.

Time has washed away most Inaugural memories. The final Inaugural was run in 2002, and then it disappeared into the abyss. The four-legged athletes of the popular feature are gone, as are too many of the two-legged ones, but it’s comforting to know that Inaugural record-setters, four-time winners, Jimmy Anderson and Tommy Dodds are among those who…

Keep the Inaugural’s flame flickering.