Back when I first went to the track there was a guy named Sandy Shields, one of the finest western Canadian jockeys of all time. And like my father, Andy Allison, it was a natural to ‘lay a few bob on the braw flying Scot.’
It was Sandy’s skill who hooked me on horse racing. To me, it seemed there wasn’t a race he couldn’t win. About five decades later I met Sandy, then a shaky ex-athlete with failing sight, but a man, you could feel, still had a burning desire to ride again.
I didn't see them race, but world-wide horse racing legends like Johnny Longden, the first man to win 5,000 races, and George "The Iceman" Woolf, who had his life ended in a race at Santa Anita, started their careers at Lethbridge and other small southern Alberta tracks.
As with Shields, I was fortunate to meet with Longden too, and still cherish our lengthy encounter.
When I began covering the Lethbridge races, one of the most colourful characters was Elijah Bourne, who incidentally was one of the best B-track riders Whoop‑Up Downs ever saw. It always seemed to me Elije could win any time he chose. Today, he has turned his talent to training and while he was “King of the Bush” as a rider, he is a now a mainstay on the Alberta A tracks - with frequent visits to Whoop-Up Downs as a trainer.
Race folks will remember Elije, that's for sure, but there were other good jockeys. Personally I always fond of Elije — and the late Norman Jewel as well. Normie was a character onto himself, and a man we could all have learned something from as he overcame many of life's adversities. Norm overcame tragedy and came back to re‑dedicate himself to his sport; a sport he loved even though he was more than twice the age of some of his fellow riders.
One thing Norm and Elije had in common was the fact they couldn't pick a winner ‑ at least not one they'd tell me about. They'd both whisper sure things in my ear and like a fool I believed them. My row boat could be a yacht had they been right. Instead, I paddle a lot.
And speaking of the riders, it’s worth noting the only added protection they have acquired through the years is the flak jacket. And like the helmet, it has saved many lives and permanent injury. But the most solid and dependable thing a rider has for protection is his or her own nerve. Think about it.
Some people tend to confuse the fact that while these men and women ride on the B circuit, they are somehow inferior to the A track riders. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the Bush riders are far more courageous, riding on their own, without the services of valets and others to cater to their every wish, or sooth their aches and pains. Generally speaking, the Bush riders are not on the A tracks for one main reason - weight. To ride the Bush is to really race; the sport is pared back to it's basic best.
Horse racing was a major form of entertainment in the smaller communities at the turn of the last century, an essential part of every country fair. The riders, owners and trainers were a tight-knit community.
Through the years that family has expanded, but it still exists today with the jockey at the core.