Horse racing has ridden a roller coaster in Lethbridge through its 128 years of existence. The sport of kings officially dates back to 1896 when it was part of the first Fair Days and continued through the 1912 Fair and World Dry-Farming Congress, and on to today. However, 10 years prior to the first fair of 1896, horse racing was held each Fall on a track just north of where the present provincial jail in now located. Horse race fans were carried out to the track via special trains. Thus began the 127 year history of the Sport of Kings in the city.
There have been many dates and changes in the past century and a quarter but today horse racing is under direction of Max Gibb with an independent operation, Rocky Mountain Turf Club, and has been on a upward turn ever since. In 1908 the trotters and pacers were on display and a great time was had by all. However, in one featured race, H.C. Bell, and his horse Lady Clark, took a spill in the five eighths of a mile dash as they headed down the stretch. Bell suffered a badly bruised shoulder and a bruised wallet as Lady Clark didn't finish. In 1912, at the new Exhibition Park, a new racing circuit was a major drawing card, bringing the city added attention from the horsey set. The Exhibition became part of the Western Canada Racing Circuit of the day, with continuous racing from June 15 to August 25 on the circuit.
Racing continued to be sporadic through the years until 1961 when the Southern Alberta Horse Racing Association was formed, by former Attorney General Lucien Maynard, Lang Chapman and Lee Williams. A Lethbridge fall race meet was inaugurated in 1962 and the association's charter held sway until 1970. By 1972 racing put $128,000 into the economy of southern Alberta through purses and wages.
One of the biggest improvements came in 1978 with the new grandstand, betting facilities and the creation of a banked race track designed by a Swedish veterinarian. Complimenting the new grandstand, the exhibition created a new race track, at the time a the track had a state-of-the-art surface and base. The track was truly unique in Canadian racing circles. With the new track a new jockey's quarters was created with shower facilities, a deck on the roof, male and female quarters and an office. The paddock had new saddling stalls, built of concrete block, and a walking ring. That same paddock and deck received a major spruce up this summer. Through the years the race announcers have included Bill Holt of Lolo, Montana, Brent Seedy of Lethbridge, Calgary's Joe Cadbury for a special day, Larry Welland, Murray Slough and Blair Holland and others. Today, Dale Johnson continues the great tradition behind the microphone. A former Exhibition General Manager, Dick Burgis, built a quarter horse straightaway in 1984, along with the late Dick Aldoff and his City Excavating crew. Burgis spruced up the grounds and there were a few years of quality racing. Whoop-Up Downs race track took on an entirely new appearance in May 1984 with the addition of the 440-yard chute. The chute - still in use today on every RMTC card - accommodated 440-yard Quarter horse races as well as other Quarter horse dashes of 220 and 350 yards. It can also be used to start six furlong thoroughbred dashes. At the same time a new Tote 1000 betting system was added.
There have been many, many super contributors to horse racing at Whoop-Up Downs.
Contributors have included an array of horses, jockeys and trainers. Stewards like the late Morris Heggie and Marc Jenkins, and input from people like Roy Farrin, long-time provincial race commissioner, moved racing through glory and troubled times on an alternating basis. Top jockeys included the likes of Sandy Shields, Elijah Bourne, Pinky MacDonald, Tommy Stadnyk, Don Pacheco, Jerry Szarka, Fred Tobacco, Doug Hall, Norman Jewell and female riders like Barbra Suitor, Judy Carrier, Sharon Willis, Rhoda Katz and Karen Campbell. Behind the scenes, mostly seen in the barns working with their horses were the likes of Matt Lyttle, Stan Marks, Lee Yonker and Mahlon Bourne. There was equally strong support from the Blood and Piigani Nations, with trainers and horse owners like Kenny Tailfeathers, Punch Tailfeathers, Peter Weasel Head, the Healy family, Rufus Goodstriker, Al Pard, the Day Chief brothers Mike and Leo, Don Shade, Don No Runner, and Art Calling Last. Committee people, many of them also horsemen, like Bill West, Dick Aldoff, Bob Noss, Ernie Snowden and Stan Marks have left lasting marks on the Whoop-Up track.
Employees - and volunteers - have included long-time starter Gordon "Dooley" Robinson who had some fun times with a crew of loaders, mostly from Raymond, including now Doctor Don Gibb, his father Bob Gibb (Max's brothers), Jim Ralph, Duke Helgerson, Scott Robinson, Brian and Darren Dudley, Dan Court Roger Baldry and others. The back stretch included many interesting people through the years the likes of farrier Del Danielson, racing secretary Don Miller and wife Rose, race charter Gwen West, paddock boss Bob Merluk, groomsman Ethel McDonald, the always present and always busy veterinarian Ed Prince.
The race track also drew colourful people as well as the owners and trainers, and few were more entertaining and interesting that Chatahouchie Smith, a trainer, and Eddie "Winnipeg" Church also known to some as Eddie Cathedral, with whom, as Damon Runyon might say, you could wager a fin or two. Then there was The Herald's Howe I. Pickem, better known as Bert Bosch.
Certainly two of the most famous people to grace the Whoop-Up Track were the immortal Johnny Longden and George "The Iceman" Woolf. Longden, one of the world's greatest jockeys, began his racing career in Taber as a 14-year-old in 1912 and on a number of occasions raced at the Lethbridge and District Exhibition grounds. He raced on the Lethbridge track at the same time as the other southern Alberta racing immortal, George Woolf of Cardston was coming on the scene Edna Pozzi was deeply involved in the horse racing, looking after the all-important books behind the scenes in the office for many years. Ernie Snowden also played many roles, from clerk of the scales, race spotter and supervisor of the jockey's room to racing committee member.