Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Mother's Day memories at the Downs

Sparkling moments from the past captured in historical displays and in our hearts

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"The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see"

-- Winston Churchill


You see them more often at the track now, young people sitting or strolling on the grass between the paddock and the racetrack -- holding hands, courting, playing, watching the horses run on warm spring and summer nights -- creating memories that might just last a lifetime.

According to Assiniboia Downs historian Bob Gates, people return year after year hoping to rekindle fond memories of their time spent at the track, romantic or otherwise. Memories that helped form their personalities, their personal history, and collectively the history of the racetrack.

"The track closing would have been devastating for many reasons," said Gates, who with the help of Assiniboia Downs CEO Darren Dunn developed and set up the historical displays of memorabilia, photographs, trophy cases and newspaper articles you see at the main entrance to the grandstand. "You don't know what you've got until it's gone. Assiniboia Downs is built on history. The old days were the foundation, the building blocks. Everything we've got today stems from that. And people remember."

According to Gates, when people visit the historical photo displays he hosts for track anniversaries, Canada Day and Manitoba Derby Day, they remember the positive things from the past.

"They look at the photos of the horses and the crowds and they remember the good old days," said Gates. "Even if the good old days weren't always good, they think they were, and that's important. It's almost like they're discovering horse racing all over again."

Good memories get people through the tough times. They help people understand themselves and form an important part of life's fabric, adding meaning to life and relationships.

Sparkling Torch was a maiden three-year-old filly I basically rescued from a dark, frozen barn on a -40C Manitoba evening in 1985. She might have made it through the winter had I left her there. I was 26, a licensed trainer at the track and I just couldn't leave her. She was marketed to us as a well-bred race horse with potential, but it was obvious her environment had already taken its toll.

It took months to get her healthy while at the same time attempting to teach her about the racing game. The first part worked out great. The second part, not so good, despite excellent care, feeding and companionship. She was looked after by my wife, Nina, and her mother, Rosemarie, who also helped me with dual Gold Cup winner Buck Domino. Stall cleaners, hot walkers, leg massagers, grooms and head horse patters, they did it all.

Horses are a lot like children and Sparkling Torch needed all the help she could get from one excellent mom and another who would later turn out to be just as stellar in that capacity. And that was just to get her to the training track. She kept jumping into the drainage ditches. When we finally solved that problem and got her to the main track, she would run into the hedge on the outside rail near the perimeter, stick her head in it, and refuse to come out.

Somehow, after four months of TLC and training, Sparkling Torch was tentatively ready to run in an actual race. I was hoping for the best but braced for the worst. She went into the gate without a problem. The success story ended there. The smiling memories continue to this day.

I was watching the race in the crowded grandstand with my own mom, who was a silent partner on the flighty filly project. The gate opened and the horses flew out, all except Sparkling Torch, who broke about 10 lengths behind the field.

"Go Sparkling Torch go!" my mom screamed over and over, turning up the volume in the stretch. "Come on Torch! Come on!" In the meantime, Sparkling Torch kept falling further and further behind and people were giving us strange looks.

"Mom, what are you doing?" I asked.

"What are you talking about?" she replied. "She almost won. She was second in the stretch. I was cheering her on."

Thanks for the memories, moms.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 9, 2014 C5

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