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This article was written by Paul Turney and originally appeared in the DAILY RACING FORM Monday, September 9, 1996. 

FORT ERIE, Ontario – There’s a lot of “local colour” on the racetrack. Along with owners who are lawyers, accountants, pharmacists, union officials, retired teachers, just plain horse lovers and racing nut, there is also the shady element.

Not too many sidle back and forth, hiding in corners and puffing on cigars, although most smokers say they feel like pariahs, outcasts from another generation.  They would  probably qualify as local colour the way things are going.  Some pull the brims of their hats down over their eyes, probably reminiscing about better times when Damon Runyon covered sports.  These days, however, the hats are caps, with peaks and baseball team names or Acme Welding Co. crests pasted on the front.

Well, I finally made it into the ranks of the colourful.  Thelma and Louise, Bonnie and Clyde?  Hardly, and I work alone, thank  you very much.  However, I’m now known for my skillful theft of Justin Nixon’s white pickup truck.  The dirty deed must have gone over really well with the backstretch boys because when I brought it back I received a standing ovation.

I had made arrangements to borrow trainer Chris MacDonald’s half-ton truck.  I stood by the vehicle and spoke with MacDonald just prior to the heist.

“The keys are in it,” he said, “and the tank is half full.”

He proceeded to walkover to the race office.  I grabbed my essentials )little black book, cell phone) from my car and went over to the white truck.  As MacDonald had advised me, the key was in the ignition.  I gave it a twist, a shot of gas, and was rewarded with the shake and rumble of the big six-cylinder engine.  Off I went through the gates and out to the Queen Elizabeth Highway.

However, I felt there was something strange going on.  The truck seemed to be running better than usual and the gas tank was just a tick above empty.  I should have picked up on the clues, but the empty gas tank got to me.  I love the excitement of trying to make it to the next town on fumes and the challenge simply got the better of me.

A few minutes later my cell phone rang.  The phone is an integral piece of equipment for operations like this, you know.  It was my belle, Michelle.

“You’ve got the wrong truck,” she said.

Uh oh.

I was almost at Netherby Road, so I used the cut off to turn around.  I headed back to the track and phoned my right hand, Nancy, and asked her whose truck I had – she’s the one who had alerted Michelle to my new status as a felon.

“Who’s truck is this?” I asked her.

“It’s Justin Nixon’s, and he has a horse running at Woodbine today,” she said in her most serious voice.

“You’d better hurry.”

I drove through the gates and the security guard nodded me through.  No reports of a stolen truck yet, I supposed.  I figured I got back fast enough that I would beat the coppers and perhaps not too many people knew.  As I parked the truck in front of the race office, however, (no one had even filled the spot yet) a crowd of horsepeople lolling under a tree jumped up and cheered.  I thought they were applauding my accomplishment.  Finally, when jockey Stacie Clark stopped rolling with laughter, she asked me if she could write my column the next day.  I guess she thought she would be doing me a favour, seeing as how I’d probably be in the hoosegow.  Fortunately, “Leaky” McKellar, head of security, wasn’t among the revellers.

Justin Nixon was calm as he got into his truck and began to drive away.  I was trying to sneak back to the other white truck when he came after me on the run.

“You forgot your phone and black book,” he said.

I thanked him and warned him he’d better hit a gas station or he wouldn’t make it to Niagara Falls, let alone Toronto.  He just smiled.  I found out Saturday that he didn’t have a horse in at Woodbine.  He just wanted his truck back, pronto.

I finally got into the right truck, which was still parked across the road, and headed out again. I’d lost a half hour and was in trouble on the home front. Uh oh.

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This post was written by Paul Turney and originally appeared in Manitoba Racing & Breeding Journal 1982.

Irwin Driedger did not exactly tear them up in his first season of race-riding at Assiniboia Downs.  Appearing rather tallish and gangly for a jockey, his introverted politeness, farm -hewn strength, and desire to work was about all he had going for him. He won very few races that summer eight or nine years ago when he graduated from the bush meets of Montana and South Dakota, but more importantly, he made two valuable contacts: Clayton Gray, a prominent trainer; and Lorne Spearman, a brash young classroom comedian who soon became his closest friend and ultimately his agent.  Spearman, whose love of horse racing had been internalised after accompanying his grandfather Elias Johns to Assiniboia downs as a child, had an effervescent character which more than compensated for his rider’s quiet countenance.  Working undercover, trying to obtain mounts for Driedger more as a favour than as a job, Spearman learned his role as an agent quickly, and the pair gained experience and confidence as a team.

Driedger worked the next winter for Clayton Gray on the trainer’s farm at Dominion City mucking stalls, breaking yearlings, mucking stalls, galloping the racing stock in the spring and mucking stalls.  When the meet started the following summer, instead of riding the stock he had worked so hard on, Driedger had to watch the more seasoned jockey, Ken Hendricks, pilot Gray’s horses to the winner’s circle.  This irked him to no end.

Driedger learned his lessons well, however, and his experience began to show in his riding style.  What had been an awkward  Ichabod Crane soon became a consummate jockey. His metamorphosis complete, Driedger could now handle himself with the best of them, and by 1979 topped the riders’ standings at Assiniboia Downs, winning 161 races, 24 more than his closest rival, and 54 more than Ken Hendricks.

In the three years that followed that triumph, the team of Driedger and Spearman took flight and reached record-breaking heights. Lorne dominated the entry box every morning and Irwin rode his heart out, earning himself status as Manitoba’s Athlete of the Year in 1980 while leading the local jockey colony for the second season in what was to become a four-year habit.  In 1981 he rode an unprecedented 214 winners at Assiniboia Downs and with a Canadian Championship within his grasp, finished off the season winning another 12 races to clinch a Sovereign Award and the Joe Perlove Trophy.  Not only was Driedger the winningest jockey in Canada, but he also enjoyed the highest victory percentage in North America!

During his four years as “the jockey” in Manitoba, Irwin Driedger won every big money race offered at Assiniboia Downs but the prestigious Manitoba Derby.  Throughout his success Driedger remained quiet, seemingly playing straight man for the high strung Spearman, but the pair clicked like Martin and Lewis and their friends, myself included, agreed that they deserved a shot at the big money: Toronto.

Spearman, like a chess player thinking five moves ahead, had already begun to work on an Eastern emigration early in 1982.  Hooked by the class of the industry during their brief Ontario stay in the fall of ’81, Spearman made as many contacts as possible, then kept in touch during the winter.  Throughout the summer of 1982, he carefully scrutinised the “Racing Form” and had a thorough knowledge of the horses, trainers and developments at Woodbine and Greenwood.  His deft moves, which earned him the nickname of “spinner” at the Downs, were decidedly moving in that direction.  He began to think only of the move to Toronto and a few friends were hurt in the process.  He favoured some owners and trainers who might not normally have enjoyed the agency’s commitments.

When they returned to Woodbine for the fall meet, their success was much more substantial than it had been in 1981. Among Driedger’s 28 victories was the Cup and Saucer Stakes, Canada’s most important 2-year-old race.  The pair kept good company in Toronto, and after seeing what racing is all about at a “big” track, Driedger and Spearman have decided to move there permanently.  While it is a big move: (they realize that they will be little fish in a big pond instead of the big fish in a little one) the three of them – oh yes, somewhere along the way Driedger overcame his shyness and married Denyse Manaigre, one of the prettiest girls in town – are determined to meet the challenge.  They know it will be tough, not only to leave their friends but also a competitive situation which invariably saw them come up well in front. It would be hard to break into a new and more elusive market.  Many have tried, but few survived.

Driedger, however, has a lot going for him these days.  He has not lost his willingness to work hard for his rewards and Spearman matches him stride for stride. When you think about it, Spearman’s efforts as an agent reach above and beyond the call of duty.  He spends every waking moment working on his rider’s behalf.  It’s easy to do that when you know the confidence Spearman has in Driedger. He knows that Irwin will never let him down, and when he sends Driedger out to ride a horse, the owner and trainer will be on the receiving end of a 100% effort – every time.  It’s no wonder that Driedger and his agent inspire a fierce loyalty from most of their clients.  Driedger’s reputation for honesty is without question and the jockey’s ability to advise a trainer on the soundness or capability of a horse is an aspect that makes him an even more valuable commodity.

While the social set might not miss Driedger or his agent, the horseman who came to depend on them certainly will.  The public will miss their number one boy as well, but no one as much as I.  While it will be nice to have the use of my office again, not to mention my phone, I am going  to miss Lorne: his ranting and raving; the calls from the Turf Club when he yelled into the receiver at me, letting the other guys think he was screaming at the stewards; his feigned innocence upon being accused of still another spin; and his mock terror when he saw an irate horseman enter the kitchen “to kill me” he’d gurgle as he locked himself in my office.  Spearman entertained me day after day over salads at Bonanza (he had to keep his weight down because he used to resemble a Butterball turkey). I am certainly going to miss him.  While Irwin was not quite as entertaining, I am one of those who is going to have to look for a new jockey to ride his horse, so I’ll miss him too.

Then there are the other riders and their agents.  They are going to miss Driedger and Spearman too.  Sure they are.  They are rubbing their hands in anticipation of getting a big raise in pay. Driedger will leave behind close to 1000 mounts, a lot of them winners that are suddenly up for grabs.

But not to worry.  They’ll be back – for the Manitoba Derby, the Futurity and any other big races Spearman where can hustle a ship-in from the East.

It won’t be long until Driedger earns the confidence of the eastern horsemen. With some luck and his usual hard work, (and you’re hearing it first from me) he may climb to the top.  I join the many friends of the Spearman-Driedger partnership in wishing them all the luck in the world.  And I can’t wait to hear whose office and telephone Spearman has commandeered.

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Written by Paul Turney this post originally appeared in The Racing Form Sunday, July 5, 1981. Submitted by Lorne Spearman.

Assiniaboia Downs, Winnipeg, July 3 – Stephen Leacock loved to write character sketches and many of them wound up in high school English courses.  His short stories were peppered with “local colour” and had he visited a racetrack, he might have emerged with a grin on his face for all time.

Jim Coleman recognized the characters on the backsides of racing plants as well as the colourful proponents of the mutuels in many of his writings and in his book “Hoofprint On My Heart”.  While many of the characters that populated River Park, Whittier and Polo Park are now gone, the backsides of modern day racetracks are home to a new breed of colourful  “turfers”.

Perhaps the fact that a racetrack backside is like a small town in which everyone knows everybody’s business, makes it easy to pick out the eccentricities which so blatantly appear.

Eccentricities are not the sole territory of the over 60 crowd, you know.  Some very nice young people, who may appear strange to city folks, blend in neatly on the backside, but some, strange as it may seem, still stick out like sore thumbs when placed amongst the holdovers from the R.J.  Speers regime.

There’s one lad, for instance, who, after retiring from high school as the student president, decided that he would find his vocation at the track.  Horses were nothing new to him — he had finagled his way into the ownership of a few runners, engineering purchases of homebred youngsters and selling shares in same.  More often than not his “partners” were teachers from the high school whose passive interest in the sport he managed to spark with his with and promises of giant returns.

Many of his parters were somewhat shocked when a horse did win a race, and there was hardly enough room in the winner’s  enclosure for all of them to squeeze i for a photo.  Although he vehemently denies it, some patners still pull out their calculators to add up the number of “quarter partners”  they had.

Amazingly, but perhaps not so surprisingly (when you get to know the fellow), all his  partners still think highly of him, and while they may not get involved in “business deals” anymore, they pass off his former dealings as youthful exuberance and the “shirttails” of his high school pranks.

He has made a success of his career as a jockey agent, a profession which involves a lot of wheeling and dealing, and most of all, talking.  Because that is what he is best at.  He zips through the barn area with an endless energy suspiciously characteristic of a Hollywood speed addict.  In this case, it’s not so.  He’s been like that since he was knee high to a grasshopper. (He’s still short and is often mistaken for a jockey.  He could never be a jockey, as he does harbor an overt fear of horses.  In this business, that fear is often called “respect”.)

While many Winnipeggers left the Prairie city for the west coast of California and made it big, using as an example David Steinberg, a regular guest on the Johnny Carson show, this fellow chooses to remain here and entertain his friends.

It has been my opinion that he is probably a lot funnier and maybe even more talented in that direction than some of the emigrants, but he chooses to make Winnipeg  his base of operations, because he is definitely a star of magnificent proportions amongst his friends and even his enemies.

He does his job extremely well, outshines his competition on a regular basis and winds up the meeting with more money in the bank.  If ever he decides to hang up his pen and condition book, and slip in behind a typewriter, our friend could easily earn a living writing comedy for television or the dailies.  He is really that good.  Unfortunately, that will probably never happen, because he cannot sit still long enough for anyone to tie him down to a chair.

His former teachers, many of whom he still sees on a regular basis, shake their heads, but quickly break out in uncontrolled laughter as memories of some of his stunts from his three years at high school come to mind.  It is sometimes hard to take him seriously, but that may work to his advantage in his chosen field.  If you don’t take him seriously, you’ll find his riders on your horses.  If his riders aren’t on your horses, it’s probably because he’s on the winner.

Talent extraordinaire, if you ever decide to move on to Hollywood, you’ve got an agent here.

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This post was written by Paul Turney and originally appeared in the Daily Racing Form Friday, October 4, 1996. It is about one of his favourite topics…his Dad. Enjoy!

Fort Erie, Ontario – Pops is coming for a visit. At 83, he’s somewhat eccentric, but loves the horses.  He’s been punting at Winnipeg’s Assiniboia Downs for as long as I can remember, but the only other track he’s been to is Hastings Park, in Vancouver.  My brother lives on the West Coast and when dad visits, they make it a point to take in a few days of racing.

I can’t wait to show off Fort Erie.  Pops has always been one to appreciate lush, manicured greenery.  I know that because of the way he made me trim the edges of our own lawn when I was a youngster.  I grew up hating the sight of shears.

He also loves to wager – lotteries, Oscar the Mouse and horses.  Even now the first thing he asks when I call him in Winnipeg is, “How’s the horse?” Not how are you, how’s the family, but how’s the horse. Pops is also quite an armchair trainer.  He diagnoses ailments from 1,500 miles away, but his prescription invariably calls for a change in distance.

Pop’s been buying Daily Racing Form since before I was born, but I’m sure all he reads is the total money won and place of birth.  Naturally, he bets on the horse which has earned the most cash, especially if it was foaled in Kentucky.  His most important source of information, however, is ethereal.  He sees numbers in the clouds, numbers in his dreams, and numbers in coffee stains.  He lives to see numbers and then reroutes them onto tickets at the track.

I’ll never forget the time we were walking into Assiniboia Downs and he stooped to pick up a nickel from the asphalt.  Studying the coin, he mumbled “1962.  Nine and one is 10, six and two is eight. It’s going to be a 10/8 double.”

He trundled over to the wickets to place his bet, while my friends roared with laughter.  Just before post time, I snuck away and bet that same double and put a fair bit of money on 10 in the first.  The horse was a longshot, but I knew how lucky my pop was. Ten came home on top and I was up a chunk.  Pop was grinning like a cheshire cat and my friends stopped laughing.  We all be the 8 horse in the second – although the “guys” were somewhat tentative because this horse, too, was paying boxcars.  I went to the $20 dollar wicket. Sure enough, here came Mr. 8, ears pricked and prancing at the front.

Pops was really happy now.  He’d made about $130 but more importantly had something to talk about.  I was up well over a grand but preferred to keep it quiet in case he wanted royalties.

I’ll be bringing pop to the races this weekend.  I know that once he gets over the initial realization that a track can be an aesthetic wonderland, he’ll love it here – there’s a whole new bank of ticket sellers to entertain.  You’ll know him when you see him.  He’ll be the guy with sparks in his eyes when you tell him he can’t bet a 1-1 exactor.  He doesn’t like the new rules and figures he’s been betting 1-1 for 40 years and should be allowed to continue.  I’m sure glad he wasn’t here Monday when Mike Newell sent out his 1 and IA entry Layfield’s Locks and Royal Don to run one-two in the second race.  The exactor was paid off on one-three, as Scottie Jr. ran third.  Pops would have been a tad upset.

And me?  I’m eager to see if my dad’s luck transcends geographic boundaries.  He’s cashed some handsome wagers at Assiniboia and at Hastings, but after all, this is Ontario, a whole different country as far as racetracks go.  Moreover, it’s Fort Erie.  You need to read the Daily Racing Form.  I’ll introduce my dad to Ken Jones at Handicapper’s Corner.  Kenny deserves an opportunity to learn a different way to pick winners.

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