Written by: Bob Gates

Originally billed as “Western Canada’s Finest Race Track,” Assiniboia Downs celebrates its 60th season in 2017.

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Memorable moments

June 10, 1958 – A brown filly by the name of Gold Ern with young apprentice Dick Armstrong in the irons won the first race at Jack Hardy’s brand-spanking new race track.

July 15, 1970 – The Manitoba Centennial Derby featured a trip from the Royal Family where Queen Elizabeth presented the “Queen’s Cup” to Jean-Louis Levesque, owner of the winning horse, Fanfreluche.

August 6. 1972 – For the first time in Manitoba’s thoroughbred racing history, racing is conducted on a Sunday.

June 23, 1976 – Jim Sorenson established a Downs’ record for most wins by a jockey on a single card when he rode seven winners on the nine-race program.

April 23, 1982 – Northern Spike with jockey Jack Wash aboard set a track and world record by covering four furlongs in :44 2/5 seconds.

May 31, 1986 – The largest win price is set when Canadian Border with jockey Scot Schindler paid $474.20 for a $2 wager.

September 7, 1993 – The Winnipeg Free Press reported that the (not-for-profit) Manitoba Jockey Club had purchased Assiniboia Downs, the last privately-owned race track in Canada.

July 8, 2011 – Female jockeys established a record when seven of the eight races are won by horses piloted by women – Jocelyne Kenny had the hat trick, Janine Stianson won a pair, while Jennifer Reed and Alyssa Harder added singles.

August 1, 2016 – Loyal supporters wagered $1,106,999 on the Derby Day card. It was the largest single-day handle in the history of the Downs.

When the Downs opened on June 10, 1958, it had been almost two years since Winnipeg had seen local horse racing. Old Polo Park racetrack closed its doors July 4, 1956 and the future of racing in Winnipeg looked bleak. Thanks to a daring and industrious Jack Hardy, a whole lot of races have been run at the Portage Avenue track that he built on the outskirts of Winnipeg.

Originally, the Downs was billed as, “Western Canada’s Finest Race Track.” These days it prides itself as the, “little track that could.” Over the years, much has changed for racing and Assiniboia Downs. The grandstand is starting to show its age as the Downs, like many others, fights to meet the challenges of the day. Things like free admission and free parking are now the norm.

On hand this year to help the Downs celebrate Season 60 is its all-time leading trainer, Gary Danelson. Danelson earned this honour on May 26, 2001 when he scored his 880th win, eclipsing the mark established by Don Gray, who passed on Christmas Day 1993.

The native of Scobey, Montana entered the 2017 season with 1,187 wins to his credit. So far in the 2017 meet, he has six wins and hopes to reach the magical 1,200 win plateau before his 80th birthday on August 28.

Danelson was a young, good-looking lad of 22 when he first came to the Downs in 1959. On August 29 that year, he hit the winner’s circle for his first ever win at Assiniboia Downs. The horse, Coherence, was a $400 purchase and Danelson’s idea was to see if he could make a go of it in the business of horse racing. Coherence won three races in 1959 at the Downs and went on to win 24 races over the course of his career. Almost 1,200 wins and 60 years later, it’s safe to say that Danelson is in the right profession.

There’s no denying that Danelson is in the twilight of his career. Yet he returns season after season to do what he loves, race horses. What’s next? Who knows? But, as long as he is able, we can expect that he will take his usual place in the northeast corner of barn “F.”

As for the Downs? Well, things look bright as the Manitoba Jockey Club (MJC) continues to meet the daunting challenges facing all tracks these days. To ensure not just its survival, but a prosperous future, the MJC formed a joint venture partnership with the Peguis First Nations in 2013 that proposes to develop hotel, convention and retail space.

Details about the plans for the partnership and its impact on racing are sparse, but chief Glenn Hudson who was part of the original joint venture, has recently been elected back into office. AD has met with him to review the status of the project and details are expected later this year.