By Scott Taylor (@staylorsports)
Assiniboia Downs’ leading owner, Henry Witt Jr., has won his first Manitoba Derby.
Sending two horses into the 75th running of Manitoba’s most prestigious horse race on Monday night, Witt’s Mano Dura, trained by four-time Downs’ trainer’s champion Jerry Gourneau, stalked the prohibitive favourite, Heroic Move, and with a 16th of a mile to go, looked the invader in the eye and blew past him. From that point on, Mano Dura with leading jockey Antonio Whitehall in the irons, cruised to victory in the first leg of the Western Canadian Triple Crown.
It was a brilliant performance by the Witt-Gourneau-Whitehall team’s 15-1 underdog. Mano Dura paid $32.80 to win $5.50 to place and $3.30 to show. Heroic Move was second and paid $2.10 to place and $2.10 to show while Tshiebwe was third and played $2.90 to show. 70-1 longshot Green Amazon was fourth while 80-1 longshot Discovery Peak was fifth.
Heroic Move and Tshiebwe got out quickly and Heroic Move took an easy lead around the first turn, but Mano Dura pulled into a comfortable spot on the rail, right behind the leaders heading down the backstretch. As he entered the final turn, Whitehall asked for a little extra and got it. Mano Dura flew past Tshiebwe and then hauled in Heroic Move at the final poll. Mano Dura was in complete control as the two horses reached the edge of the grandstand.
At that point, Heroic Move’s jockey, Rico Wolcott, put away his whip and watched Mano Dura cross the finish line, three lengths ahead.
Mano Dura came into the $125,000 Derby on a high after winning a $10,000 allowance at ASD on July 24. He had won $83,393 this summer and had three wins at ASD and Lone Star.
Heroic Move, meanwhile, has been a regular at the prestigious Arkansas track, Oaklawn Park, and had won $103,188 coming into the race. Trainer Robertino Diodoro had already won the Manitoba Derby four times and jockey Rico Wolcott is one of the rising stars at Woodbine. Bettors had made Heroic Move the 2-5 favourite at race time.
Speaking of bettors – at least, the big players – a highlight of the evening’s card at ASD was the mandatory payout of the Jackpot Pick 5. The carryover going into the night was a record $597,000 and horseplayers responded by adding a whopping $1.86 million on the day. The Pick 5 paid $5,689 for a $1 bet. Adding to the excitement, the $100,000 guaranteed Pick 4 ballooned to $190,236 when the betting closed.
Mano Dura is now the only horse with a chance to win the $100,000 bonus for winning all three races in the Western Canada Triple Crown. The second leg, the $200,000 Canadian Derby, goes to post in Edmonton on Aug. 26, and then the final leg, the $125,000 B.C. Derby, will be held at Hastings in Vancouver on Sept. 16.
For trainer Gourneau and owner Witt, the close relationship they’ve had for many years have paid off in a big way. It was the first Manitoba Derby win for both of them and it’s been earned with blood, sweat and huge financial commitment to the racing game at ASD. In fact, Mano Dura was claimed by Witt for $50,000 at Lone Star Park in Grand Prairie, Tex., on June 17
Gourneau, who hails from Turtle Mountain Chippewa Nation in Belcourt, N.D., built his thoroughbred reputation right here in Winnipeg and became the first Indigenous trainer to win the Derby. He will also be the first to admit that a meeting with Witt not only solidified his career but also his entire racing business.
Henry Witt Jr. made his money in the auto glass business and by working his 800-acre Texas ranch. Back in the early 2000s, he was a giant of southern dirt-track auto racing who ran horses on the side. Today, he’s a giant of the thoroughbred racing industry, especially here in Winnipeg where his horses have long been among the best on the grounds. In fact, considering the number of quality horses he sends to Gourneau’s barn every spring, he might be the most important person in Manitoba’s racing industry today.
“I got lucky,” Gourneau said. “I struck it big by getting a client like Henry Witt Jr. We met about five years before we decided to run horses together. We met at Fonner Park (Nebraska). He was running a couple of horses in stakes races and we kind of clicked as friends and then one day he called me and said he had a couple of horses at Lone Star Park (Grand Prairie, Texas) and they were getting beat regularly. I told him, ‘Send them up here to Assiniboia Downs. I’m a horseman. I’ll take a look at them and see if we can get them running better.’ He sent me five horses and not long after we won six races. One of the horses won two.
“That’s when he said, ‘OK, I’m going to send you one of my better horses,’ and that’s when he sent me Witt Six. That’s where it really started. He won almost all of his races, ran second in the Manitoba Derby, second in the Canadian Derby and that sparked the closeness between Henry and I. Now, we’re like brothers, we talk so much.”
They are not only “like brothers,” but they are also real champions.