Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Seabiscuit story exposes dark day at city track

Jockey's tragic death at Polo Park was racing flashpoint

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IT'S the Winnipeg connection to Seabiscuit, one of the most highly anticipated movies of the summer.

But it's a link that perhaps we could do without, exposing as it does a dark -- and virtually unknown -- chapter in this city's rich horse racing history.

In the best-selling book that spawned the movie, Seabiscuit: An American Legend, American author Laura Hillenbrand tells the story of the death of Earl "Sandy" Graham at the old Polo Park Race Track to illustrate how brutal conditions were for jockeys in the Seabiscuit era.

On Sept. 10, 1927, Graham -- a 16-year-old rider from California -- was involved in a terrible accident during the first race at Polo Park on Portage Avenue.

Graham was carried off the track with a broken spine and massive chest injuries. He was then left to languish on a table in the jockeys' room for the rest of the day -- despite the protests of his fellow jockeys -- because the track's management would not summon an ambulance or even a doctor.

The jockeys, Hillenbrand writes, passed a hat among themselves in a bid to raise enough money to have a taxi take Graham to hospital. But such were the bitter economic conditions for jockeys of the day that they collectively couldn't raise enough for fare.

Graham was finally taken to Winnipeg General Hospital after the conclusion of the day's seventh and final race. He died there 12 days later.

On Sept. 24, 1927, Graham was laid to rest in a pauper's grave at Brookside Cemetery.

And with him, the appalling details surrounding his death were also laid to rest. Scant newspaper accounts from the period made no mention of the neglect that led to Graham's death, and his story seemed destined never to be told.

And it probably never would have been, but for the efforts of a fellow jockey who was so appalled by what he saw that day that he launched a lifelong campaign to improve the lives of jockeys.

The efforts of Tommy Luther ultimately led to the formation of the Jockeys Guild, a worldwide organization that still exists. The Guild has dramatically improved the lives of jockeys, providing them with disability insurance and collectively bringing about better pay and safer working conditions -- from better track conditions to ambulances on hand at every track.

But it took Hillenbrand's book -- and an article she wrote in the racing journal, The Thoroughbred Times, following Luther's death in January 2001 -- to bring to light the central role an incident in this city 76 years ago played in bringing about those fundamental changes.

The reference to Graham's death encompasses barely a page in Hillenbrand's 400-page Seabiscuit book and the episode is not portrayed in the movie itself.

But already there's talk at the Downs of perhaps putting together some kind of tribute to Graham, Luther and the role this city played in an episode that changed racing forever.

"I had no idea any of this had happened. I had absolutely no knowledge," says Manitoba Jockey Club president Harvey Warner. "But now that it's out, it's something we could certainly look at.

"It's amazing to think that something like that happening here could have resulted in all those changes."

Veteran Downs jockey Jacques DesAutels had also never heard of Graham. But he said he's been the beneficiary over and over again of the changes his death sparked.

"I don't know how many times I've been in that (track) ambulance. Too many to count," says DesAutels, a St. Boniface native who's ridden off and on at the Downs since the '70s and won his first riding title last year.

DesAutels, who is one of two local representatives of the Jockeys Guild, said there can be no underestimating the role that organization played in bettering the lives of jockeys.

"It's made a huge difference for us. It's way better now for riders now than it was back in those days," said DesAutels, who endorses the idea of some kind of tribute at the Downs for Graham.

Nick Cizik rode at Polo Park as early as 1939. But the lifelong Winnipegger says he'd never heard of Graham, although he saw the results of some of the improvements his death spawned.

In 1941, a year after the Jockeys Guild was formed, a Vancouver rider named Rex Young was also involved in a terrible spill at Polo Park.

But instead of languishing in the jockey's room as Graham had, Young was attended to by a track doctor and rushed to hospital by a track ambulance, says Cizik.

Young died anyway, the only other jockey fatality on record in Winnipeg. But at least he didn't suffer the way Graham did, Cizik says.

"They did what they could for him," says Cizik, now 77.

Louis Cauz, who runs the Canadian Horse Racing Hall Of Fame in Toronto, said Winnipeg has a rich and storied horse racing history.

But like tracks all over North America in Graham's era, the conditions were perilous for jockeys here, as they were everywhere else, he says.

"There were no blood or urine tests -- for horses or riders -- anywhere in those days," says Cauz. "And then you had horses running every other day on tracks that weren't nearly as well maintained as they are now. And then there were no ambulances.

"It was just a much more dangerous time."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 27, 2003 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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