Horse Racing at River Park
by Harry Rudd, edited by A. S. Lussier
Manitoba Pageant, Winter 1979, Volume 24, Number 2
The revival of thoroughbred racing in Winnipeg emanates from the sporting proclivities of a few livestock men conducting business at the Union Stock Yards in St. Boniface, in 1920.
Each owned a saddle horse used around the yards for sorting and driving cattle ... Arguments arose as to who owned the fastest horse this resulted in matched races being arranged, which were decided on a dirt road running through the old Norwood Golf Course.
Interest in these contests became keener ... Gradually the men acquired half-bred horses, three-quarter-breds and, eventually the odd thorough-bred ... Rivalry increased, each owner feeling confident he had the horse with the most speed, until races were run with six, eight, and sometimes ten horses struggling for supremacy.
“Struggling” is the word, for the horses were walked or ridden from the Stock Yards to River Park, at the foot of Osborne Street, for a distance of about 3½ miles, “warmed up” by being ridden half a dozen times up and down the infield, some being equipped with stock saddles weighing around 40 pounds, and carrying a rider anywhere from 120 to 150 lbs.
So important had these contests become that old River Park’s half-mile race track became the venue of the Saturday afternoon misnomer Stock Yard Derby, although it was only a dash of half a mile, the one stipulation being “Owners up” or “Catch weights” ... This sporting event not only attracted men of the stock yards but many others to whom a horse race provided a welcome diversion from the regular sports being carried on in various parts of the city.
About this time, some of the owners of Standard Breds, or Harness horses, used to congregate at River Park and race among themselves: they invited the boys from the stock yards to stage their race at the same time - the invitation was accepted and a great deal of interest was aroused, the running race being the most attractive and entertaining to the several hundred spectators ... As a result of the two types of horses racing on the same afternoon pro-grams, they were called “matinee” meetings.
The interest in the Stock Yards classic was not only local as it extended across the international boundary ... The live stock men of South St. Paul, Minnesota believed they had faster horses and, to defend their many boasts they shipped a horse to Winnipeg ... Advance information intimated that the St. Paul men were not going to make any mistake, as it was a thorough-bred that was to be shipped to compete against the local saddle horses ... “Toastmaster” was the alleged thoroughbred, owned by a Charlie Freeman and the horse with which they intended to make a “killing” ... This naturally spurred the local boys to action: a few horses were brought in from Calgary and Jerry Dohan, a local cattle dealer leased a thoroughbred called “Chandelier”.... This was all in the days before pari-mutuel betting was in vogue in Winnipeg, and the privilege of backing one’s fancy was vested in a well-known character of the turf, Joe Carson, who ran a hand-book.
The day set for the “big race” came around, but the efforts of the Minnesota stock men were in vain - Toastmaster broke down in the race, Chandelier being the victor ... So disappointed and disgusted was Charlie Freeman that he sold the horse to an ex jockey, Freddy English, who came to an untimely death that year in an automobile accident ... Incidentally, the local livestock men increased their bank rolls very materially through one of the many vicissitudes of the race track - a “sure thing” that failed.
Public interest in the sport offered by a handful of men was now growing, and the year 1921 saw the first race meeting held under the pari-mutuel system conducted by the Winnipeg Driving Club ... A three-day meeting was held during the latter part of June - harness races and running races ... a second three-day meet was held from 21 July at which there were nearly one hundred horses ... They had come from Calgary and Edmonton at the conclusion of the Western Fairs.
The officers of the Winnipeg Driving Club at this time were all well-known in the horse world: W. D. Mace was the Honorary President; Alex Stewart, President; Jerry C. Dohan, Vice-President; T. Sumner Sr., Director; J. B. Lewis, Treasurer and W. A. Eastwood, Secretary.
The officials of the race meeting were: Judges: Dan Hamilton (father of the late Roxy Hamilton MLA); R. G. Willis (father of late Errick Willis MLA); Wm. Hatch; Timers, W. W. Fraser, J. H. Harris and Dr. Cox. Starter: W. I. Elder; Clerk of the Course, W. A. Eastwood ... The services of Phil Reilly of Louisville, Kentucky were obtained as Racing Secretary, but he also supervised the pari-mutuel department, and was advisor generally on the conducting of the meeting.
Mutuel tickets were necessary and to purchase complete sets would entail considerable expense ... In order to preserve their available funds, old tickets were resurrected from the Winnipeg Exhibition which had closed its doors around 1913 ... Packing cases full of tickets of every description were sorted until sufficient numbers were obtained ... This work was done in the smoking room of the Empire Hotel, then owned and operated by J. J. Walsh who, at one time, owned one of the largest racing stables on the Pacific Coast.
The buildings at River Park were in deplorable condition - the conveniences for the public were appalling, but arrangements were made with D. J. McDonald, a lumberman, and a Director of the Driving Club, to get the stables patched up so they could be utilized at least they would keep the sun off the horses, but not the rain.
The staff available to man the mutuel department was without experience, a practical system had not been installed - checking facilities were very meagre and the consequence was, that at the end of the first day’s operation, the bank roll had gone - the result of a harness race had been sent in to the calculators - prices were arrived at and posted many tickets had been cashed when later word came that the first horse had been disqualified.
The second day of the spring meeting was almost as disastrous as the first - when Frank Fowlie, who had been deputized to look after the cashiers, turned in the day’s proceeds, it checked about $900 short. It was discovered that non-paying tickets had been cashed by one of the cashiers who, incidentally, did not wait to get his own pay.
This was serious, as the funds necessary to finance a race meeting were far from being sufficient, and it was only upon the endorsation of a note by all the directors, jointly and severally, that it was possible to borrow $1,000 from the Bank of Nova Scotia for bank roll purposes. Interest in running races developed in 1921, and there appeared a more favourable reaction to the runners than the harness horses even though real enthusiasm was lacking - the devotees of horse racing, having been accustomed to wagering with bookmakers did not take too kindly to the pari-mutuel machines.
The first meeting was opened by Premier T. C. Norris, accompanied by Edward Parnell, Mayor of Winnipeg attendance was not very good - the new type of wagering was somewhat of a curiosity to most. Amongst the running horses that took part - names that were later to become watchwords amongst the sporting element were: Charles C, owned by Geo. Owen of Wetaskiwin; Dora Star, owned by Charlie Archer, Edmonton; Tommy Sumner Sr.’s Sunny Day; Chas. (Gyp) Emmert’s favorite, Prairie ... Others were: Bob Nail; Benmore 11; Yakamine; Joe S; Bonnie’s Buck, and several others, including Toastmaster, who had been rested up and was now back to race.
Jockeys who were kept quite busy were: Arthur Martin, Bobby Small, Bert Aldridge, Tommy Webber, “Mugsy” McGraw, Battler McEwan, Dick Maskell and others ... A canvas tent acted as the Jock’s Room.
Due to the popularity of the invading thoroughbreds, many local men started to buy horses, but the identity of the stock yards was kept intact as, during those meetings, a “Derby” - half mile dash and the occasional matched race was run which created as much excitement as any event on the program.
In spite of the many difficulties encountered in this venture, another effort was made in 1922 to galvanize life into the sport of horse racing ... River Park, owned by the Winnipeg Street Railway, was leased by R. J. Speers, T. Sumner Sr. and W. Halpenny.
Several local men interested themselves in buying running horses ... There were no restrictions as to what kind of horse could take part in the meetings ... cold-blooded horses could run against thoroughbreds if his owner thought he had a chance ... One horse, owned by W. H. Morton of Winnipeg, ran in both harness and running races ... Among the sportsmen to acquire horses were Jerry Dohan, a well known cattleman, who bought “Slippery Ann”, a very fast filly but of unknown parentage, Jingo, Speculator and Little Miss; ... Dave Swail had Little Bernice and Ballota; Wm. Halpenny owned Mulligan; Tom Sumner Sr. had Spizzerines, previously owned by R. J. Speers ... Stanley Harrison of Fort Qu’Appelle also raced his Merry Marquis at these meetings.
Old timers will remember the name of Charlie (Gyp) Emmert and his string of runners: Humma, Mazama, The Mrs., She Will, and Old Prairie. .. also George Addison’s horses, trained by Andy Robinson included Col Boyle, Yorkshire Relish, George McHattie and Lady Edmonton...the Barnes brothers (Stub and Douge) with Olds 8, Utelus; Chas. Archer with Echo, Dora Star and Phil Martin; Andy Higginbottom with the Shiek, all familiar names to the racegoers of the years to follow.
In an effort to assure greater efficiency in this practically new enterprise, R. J. Speers took measures to accomplish this desire.., he obtained the services of one, Robert L. Leighton of Vancouver, an authority on racing in Canada and appointed him Racing Secretary and Presiding Steward - and while his position was high, his office was low for on more than one occasion he took entries for the races while sitting in the bleachers, placing stones on his papers to prevent them being blown away ... afterwards a small cubby-hole was laid out for him underneath the grandstand, from where he continued to operate.
In the pari-mutuel department, a man by the name of Rex Miller, who had been working at the Western Canada Fairs was employed ... These men had the experience which had been so sadly lacking in previous ventures and progress was being made ... Greater confidence was placed in the management than ever before. New owners and horses made their appearance at the second meeting in 1922, and the public became more enthusiastic, although still lacking support to make the meeting successful ... The story of how a prominent Winnipeg owner, (now deceased) got his start in the sport is of interest ... In the summer of 1921, in a shipment of horses from Edmonton was a horse named Pazaar ... This horse had not got over the effects of the last race at Edmonton the day of the shipment, got badly battered around in the car, and was moved to River Park with great difficulty ... The horse lay in his stall for three days and was in terrible condition. He was offered for sale for $25.00 but there were no takers ... The fourth day the horse started to eat and was able to stand ... about this time a man by the name of Alf Tarn came along and gave the owner $100.00 for Pazaar ... Tarn turned the horse out to pasture and brought him back the following year, but his days of usefulness were over and he failed to win, but Tarn, anxious to see his colors on the track again purchased a four-year-old named Peppery Polly for $1,500, but she did stay in his barn long and he lost her due to an injured foot ... Alf, not discouraged, purchased three other horses: China Jane, Effie Randall and Lucky Hayes from a trainer named Skaggs, training for W. T. Hale of San Diego, California ... These horses did quite well for the new owner, but at the end of the Winnipeg meet Tarn shipped them to Eastern Canada to conquer new fields ... Surprise and disappointment was the lot of Tarn, who had accompanied the horses for, when he went to enter them he was informed he could not run them as they were ruled off the Turf at Tia Juana and therefore ineligible. Telegraph wires burned in an endeavour to get the matter straightened out but the meeting was over before this was accomplished.
Tarn continued to buy more and better horses and, later in his career was rated as one of the top ten trainers in America ... Jockey Johnny Longden, later to marry Tarn’s daughter, Hazel, did most of Alf Tarn’s race riding, including all the victories on Rushaway, rated as the “Iron Horse” of 1936, by virtue of winning two state Derbies - Chicago and Latonia, Kentucky - on successive days.
Notwithstanding the efforts of management to provide horse races and good entertainment, John Public was still skeptical, the attendance was by no means large, but it gradually increased as the meeting progressed ... The citizens of Winnipeg had to be educated to appreciate horse racing, and the task was not easy, although one patron caught on pretty quickly as he purchased a ticket on a horse to win - his was the only straight ticket to win - and he took the whole pool and, it is reported he never came back to the track.
In the Mutuel Department, Herb King - father-in-law to ex-Blue Bomber football player, Phill Nairn - was appointed Manager for all western fairs and he introduced a system which gave management all the relevant details of the day’s operation - number of tickets sold, revenue, uncashed tickets and the exact amount of money that should be on hand ... A noted firm of Chartered Accountants was also engaged to check and ensure the public was protected.
Racing was now on a higher plane although there were no restrictions as to the calibre of horses that were permitted to race ... Some half-breds were still in evidence, and unregistered horses were being claimed by their owners as thoroughbreds.
There were no particular highlights from the spring meeting, but the fall meeting produced the first spectacular accident ... On the fifth day during the running of the first event, a “Special named Pace” seven horses went to the post in the five-furlong affair. Sunny Day, owned by Tommy Sumner, Sr., ridden by “Battler” McEwan, while leading at the first turn, suddenly fell, causing a general pile-up of the rest of the field with the exception of Arcadia, owned by E. Campbell of Edmonton, and Prairie Fan owned by A. Mc-Dougal of Prairie Grove, Man. being the only two finishers ... Sunny Day lay prone on the track for almost fifteen minutes - a policeman had his revolver out ready to shoot him - when the horse raised his head and, with a little assistance got to his feet and was led back to the barns where the other horses involved in the accident, Donovan, Joe Simpson, Bob Nall, who later had to be destroyed, and Black Star had preceded him ... Incidentally Sunny Day never won another race after that accident.
Further additions to the list of Winnipeg owners were noticeable at this meeting. Frank Fowlie racing under the nom de course: “Frozen North Stable” acquired a few horses, some of supposedly good breeding, others whose parentage was questionable ... The sport had now reached a stage where R. J. Speers believed the people of Winnipeg were becoming more race-minded and were enjoying the entertainment provided for them and, at the conclusion of the 1923 season laid plans to provide another race-track which would furnish the people with another fourteen days of racing during the year ... Subsequently the Manitoba Jockey Club was reorganized and, in the spring of 1924 Whittier Park came into being ... Gus Creelman, the contractor who constructed a big portion of the Welland Canal was the man R. J. called upon to build the half-mile race track on the land lying between the Canadian National Railway right of way, and the Red River in St. Boni-face and, although beset with financial difficulties when the workmen threatened to go on strike if they did not receive their wages by 3 P.M. on a certain Saturday afternoon, the workmen were pacified by the ingenious method of R. J. in having money transferred mostly in $1.00 bills, to Whittier Park from the paid admissions at River Park being operated at the same time ... In June 1924 Whittier Park opened its gates for the first meeting ... John T. Ireland was the Presiding Steward, and H. D. (Jimmy) Munroe was the Racing Secretary.
This meeting received increased patronage of the sport loving people of Winnipeg, and demonstrated that the enterprising step taken by R. J. Speers in providing a clean, modern racing plant and honest efforts to present interesting race programmes had not been in vain ... Frank Shea now joined the list of local owners and gathered a formidable stable together at considerable cost ... Under the name of “Green Brier Stable”, he raced such well-known horses as Scissors, Pig Wig, Tingling, Doubtful and Little Florence ... Other well known horses of Stakes calibre which were added to his stable were Backbone, and Flatiron. The majority of other local owners had also, by this time increased the size of their stables.
The second meeting in 1924 provided two remarkable feats. Alf Tarn’s Lucky Hayes won fame for himself by starting on four consecutive days and winning four races ... The other horse to distinguish himself was Sandy - he won three races on three consecutive days.
Thoroughbred horse racing had now taken quite a hold on the populace but, in the mind of R. J. Speers it should be better organized and controlled. He was instrumental in calling a meeting of men interested in the welfare of the thoroughbred, also calling in representatives of the Western Canada Fairs conducting race meetings ... a governing body was formed - The Prairie Thoroughbred Breeders and Racing Association ... Rules of racing were established, and a Steward representing this body, was to be in attendance at all race meetings to see they were conducted in accordance with the laid down rules.
In 1925, Polo Park, a six furlong track, was built and raced under the charter of the Winnipeg Jockey Club and the charter of St. Vital Agricultural Society, under which, previously, River Park had been operating. Polo Park was later classed as one of the finest tracks in the west.
In 1926, in an endeavor to improve the calibre of horse racing, the newly formed Association made the rule that no horse would be allowed to start at any meeting under their jurisdiction unless it was a true Thoroughbred and registered with the New York Jockey Club, or with the Canadian National Live Stock Records, Ottawa ... This rule went into effect on 1 January 1927 and is a rule which still exists today.
Page revised: 22 December 2015Back to top of page