Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Downs' historian a treasure

Gates has track's past covered, from wire to wire

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Bob GATES believes one of the greatest horse races ever run in Manitoba was the 1948 Canadian Derby at Polo Park, in which filly Victory Gift, owned by Scotty Kennedy, who later became Assiniboia Downs' first general manager, dominated the boys over a mile-and-a-quarter.

"Victory Gift wired the field, and she was only two ticks off the track record," said Gates, the Downs' official historian. "The horse that finished second was a colt by the name of Lord Fairmont, owned by Jim Speers. He had finished second in the King's Plate that year."

History is the thing that lights up Gates' life, and the retired researcher with the provincial ombudsman's office has examined Victory Gift's run to fame.

In his possession are some 78 RPM records that he was presented with by former track employee Helen Penner. On them are pre- and post-race interviews and the race call. She had also given him a collage of four or five photographs of Victory Gift winning the Derby. "One of the 78s is of the 1948 Derby. The records are classics, and to have the photos that go with them is fabulous."

The Canadian Derby, added Gates, is also a piece of Manitoba history, having been created by Speers in 1930 at Polo Park as the Manitoba Stakes, for Manitoba-bred horses. In 1936 it became the Manitoba Derby, for three-year-old horses bred in Canada, and in 1941 it became the Canadian Derby. In 1942 U.S. Racing Hall of Famer Johnny Longden won it on Maginot Line. The Derby was moved to Edmonton in 1957, one year after Polo Park closed.

Gates admits he often gets lost in the past, especially when absorbed in his passion of horse racing. To be more specific, he is obsessed with the sport, but mainly as it pertains to horse racing in Manitoba, especially Assiniboia Downs.

Soon to turn 60, he recalls a time as a child when the opiate of his choice was to wander down to the rail at the north end of the track when they'd be starting a seven-furlong race. "When that gate would open, and you could hear that clang as they all charged out; well, there is no bigger rush."

Over the years, Gates devoured every bit of information he could. "The jockeys were like rock stars to me, and for some strange reason, the names and some of the events, I remember oh so well. Back then Elman (Free Press's Guttormson) and Harold Loster (Winnipeg Tribune), wrote about everything. If anybody sneezed at the race track the night before, Elman was all over it."

As a child, Gates collected track objects such as tickets, programs, etc., but it wasn't until three years ago that he was asked by track CEO Darren Dunn if he would put together a display to complement a special day for the late Bobby Stewart, one of the greatest riders to race at the Downs. "There was an 11-year period (1962-72) that Bobby Stewart ('66, '68, '69, '70, '71 and '72) and Dick Armstrong ('62, '64, '65 and '67), won the jockey title 10 times" said Gates. "They were two of the strongest jockeys ever to race here.

The following year, he did a few more projects for the Downs, and this year he was named the official track historian.

In his opinion, the greatest race ever run at the Downs was the 1969 Manitoba Derby, won by Fire N Desire, with Armstrong in the saddle. "The horse that was second was Icy Song with Avelino Gomez up. These two horses went head to head for the mile-and-an-eighth, and Fire N Desire had the lead at every point of call. By the time they headed for home Fire N Desire still led, but they went at it just bobbing heads apart. When they hit the wire Fire N Desire won. The quinella paid $3.10, a record low at that time."

This year, in addition to photo displays and articles for the programs etc., Gates has added a blog located on the Assiniboia Downs website titled "On Track with George, Rob and Bob" in which George Williams covers the previous evening's results, Rob McLennan shares betting techniques and Gates shares his history knowledge with readers.

"I am living the dream now as far as I am concerned," says Gates. "I feel so fortunate to be able to do something that I love to do."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 1, 2012 C7

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