TURF’S TOP MAN
R. J. Speers owns race tracks, operates them, breeds horses, races them, and once sold a good filly for 37 cents
THE big man sat heavily in the deserted grandstand. On the backstretch a two-year-old chestnut colt was jogging along gently, his coat beautiful in the early morning sun. Suddenly the exercise boy clucked to the colt and settled low along his back. The big man sat up appreciatively, shifted his cigar and clicked the stop watch in his hand.
The colt ran with head held low, thrust forward against the restraining bit. There was drive and power and rhythm in every stride. He made the turn for home, and he ran as straight as a string. His shadow danced along beside him, and as they flashed under) the finishing wire, horse and shadow were one. The exercise boy stood erect in his irons, grinned and patted the colt resoundingly on the neck. The big man in the grandstand looked down at his watch and grinned too.
The big man—whose name is R. James Speers— knew that he had bred another winner.
Although R. James Speers lives in Winnipeg and his activities are confined principally to western Canada, he is the strikingly dominant figure in Canadian racing. He is the one Canadian who owns race tracks, operates them, breeds horses and races them, all with the greatest success and without incurring enmity or noticeable jealousy among his rivals.
Even more striking, in light of this achievement: racing was once only a sideline with him. He still is one of the West’s largest cattle dealers, and thousands of shorthorns roam the ranges of his 10,000acre ranch, near Carberry, Man.
There’s something about Jim Speers’ ruddy complexion, frank blue eyes, ready smile and the shape and size of his modified cattleman’s hats that gives a clue to what writers grope to describe as the friendly quality of the West. His friends can be found sitting in immaculately panelled offices of the stately East or sleeping in tack rooms under the gloomy
shedrows on any of this continent’s race tracks.
The public judges some men by their bank accounts, some by their piety and some by their public benefactions. There’s another gauge of intrinsic worth—the strange, unerring instinct gentlemen of the road use when they’re sizing up a man for a “loan.”
In this last connection, here’s a tale. One afternoon, after the races, Mr. Speers was standing outside the Orchard Park Hotel, immediately abaft Toronto’s Woodbine Park, when a character known as Michigan Ike swirled through the hotel’s beverage room door. Gruffly, he asked Speers for a quarter for a cup of coffee.
Pocketing the money, he reeled, aghast, as he recognized his benefactor.
“Migosh, Mr. Speers,” he apologized, “I didn’t recognize you or I’d have asked for two bucks.
Jim Speers isn’t a product of the West. He was born, 64 years ago, at Elmbank, in Ontario’s Peel County—on the present site of Malton Airport, near Toronto. As a boy, after a little schooling, he was apprenticed to his blacksmith father. But in 1900, when he was 18, he went West. He tarried briefly in Winnipeg, then pushed farther west to old Battleford, Sask., riding the last 50 miles on a bicycle.
At that point you
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Turf's Top Man
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could have counted his dollar bills on his ears. But people didn’t need much to get by in that country then, and a few odd jobs brought him the cash he needed to start dealing in cattle. The deals got bigger and bigger, until he had enough money to open a feed store. Then the deals got bigger still, and came oftener, and it wasn’t much more than eight years after Jim Speers pedalled into Battleford on a bicycle that he was one of the district’s best-heeled citizens.
He jumped into politics too. In 1912 he took time out from racing (thoroughbreds and standard-breds, in competition with other local cattlemen), selling livestock and selling feed to run as Conservative candidate in the rabidly Liberal Provincial constituency of Tramping Lake. He lost.
It was during this early period that the East first saw him as a horseman. He travelled to Hamilton with a horse named Leihand. They worked the horse over five furlongs one morning before dawn, and no dockers were around to record that Leihand ran faster than most horses.
He entered Leihand in a race, then sent his agents into the betting ring (those were the days of the bookies). His horse was 200-to-l. Speers bet enough to win $5,000 before the bookmakers, who worked in close harmony, realized that someone was about to sandbag them. They promptly forgot how to speak English when any of the Speers agents approached. But that wasn’t all— the books couldn’t afford to take a nasty smack of $5,000. There was a hurried consultation between an emissary of the bookmakers and the track officials.
Just as the horses were due to leave the paddock for the track, an official approached Mr. Speers and demanded to see Leihand’s thoroughbred registration papers.
The papers were in the barn. A groom sped across to the barn to get them. The other horses in the field paraded rapidly to the barrier. The groom, panting and spluttering, scurried back to the paddock, but before he could reach it the starter gaily released the starting tape and sent the horses on their way. Leihand had a very good view of the race from his stall in the paddock.
“There’s a bit of larceny in everyone,” he says. “It’s just that you notice it more around a race track.”
He doesn’t discuss his own wagering activities at great length, but he doesn’t mind telling how he got even with the bookmaking industry. In 1928 he took a horse named Rochester II to Toronto, then discreetly withdrew to Ottawa. From there he telephoned to some of his old bookmaking friends and remarked that he’d like to make a few bets on a horse he had sèen in the Toronto entries—let’s see, he thought the name was Rochester II. When the smoke cleared away, Rochester II had won in a gallop and Speers had smacked the bookmakers for $15,000.
Race Track Impresario
From racing, livestock business and politics, Mr. Speers was widely known throughout the West by 1920, when he moved to Winnipeg. He made the move because Winnipeg was the spout through which the western livestock business flowed, but it wasn’t long before he began expanding in a new direction—into racing as a business, instead of just for fun; although the way he does things it is generally a bit of both.
With two partners he leased River Park and staged two successful meetings in 1922. By 1924 he had reorganized the Manitoba Jockey Club and built Whittier Park, on the banks of the Red River in St. Boniface. The next year he built Polo Park in Winnipeg, followed shortly by Chinook Park, outside Calgary. These are known as the “Speers Tracks,”
and he still runs them. In addition he operates the annual race meetings at Edmonton, Saskatoon, Regina and the Calgary Stampede.
But western Canada needed more than race tracks—it needed race horses. He branched into the thoroughbred breeding industry. This move was almost disastrous. The Speers breeding establishments lost important money for 10 years. He stuck to it, though, satisfied by the fact that they were providing a racing stock he needed for his tracks.
Although breeding was a steady drain on the Speers pocketbook, he was still able, in 1929, to embark on what was to be the greatest disaster of his business career—the building of a six-furlong track at Butte, Mont. It was named Marcus Daly Park, after the late copper king, who had been one of racing’s most lavish patrons.
Butte had been famous as a gambling town in the early days of the century, so Speers’ first 24-day meeting was an extremely ambitious project. But he didn’t realize that the old gambling element which had worked the copper mines in Daly’s days had died out. They’d been replaced by men of Central European stock, who loved dice and cards but had no interest in horse racing. Though he incurred terrible losses, “R. J.”struggled through the meeting and made good with every promise to the horsemen.
Being an extremely stubborn man, he went back to Butte for more punishment in 1930. That meeting lasted only four days before he was forced to call a halt.
Then he made a gesture seldom— if ever —equalled in the history of the American turf. He summoned the horsemen to a meeting in the track office. He asked each man where he wanted to ship his horses. Some wanted to go to California; some to Chicago and others to Canada. Speers sat down and personally guaranteed to pay the shipping expenses of every horseman, horse and piece of equipment from Butte to their destinations. The whole venture cost him $250,000.
At that point, even with the good will that gesture brought him, things weren’t looking too good for the stubborn Irish Canadian. On top of his breeding losses and the Butte fiasco, the depression and the continued drought almost delivered a complete knockout to western racing. But Speers continued to operate. In 1931, at Victoria Park in Calgary, he was the first to introduce daily double wagering, popular in England, to North America. Later, at Whittier Park in Winnipeg, he unveiled the first officially used mechanical starting gate on this continent.
The Big Break
The fortunes of Speers the breeder took a sudden turn for the better in 1933. That year he made a trip to Kentucky with the intention of buying the good imported stallion, Craigangower. His arrival in the area of the widely publicized lush bluegrass coincided with President Roosevelt’s “bank holiday.” Kentuckians, with hundreds of head of hungry
thoroughbreds on their hands, were ready to sell stock to anyone who had cash. Speers, despite his misfortunes, had some.
Instead of returning to Winnipeg with Craigangower, he returned with Craigangower and 28 thoroughbred mares —and he’d paid only $8,800 for the lot! That single trip put his breeding establishments on their feet. Those and other mares on his farms since have produced the winners of nearly 1,000 races.
In the past 10 years Speers has been in “The Big Three” of Canadian horse breeders, along with R. S. McLaughlin, the chairman of General Motors, and the late Harry Hatch. The eastern gentlemen always have been friendly. A few years ago, apparently on nothing more substantial than impulse, Mr. McLaughlin gave him two good stallions—-Osiris II and Bien Eagle—and Mr. Hatch gave him the excellent mare, Sweepden:
But Mr. Speers doesn’t leave all the grand gestures to his racing colleagues. 4 One morning, a few years ago, he was at his stock farm watching the new crop of two-year-olds workout. Beside him was a horsestruck young Winnipegger named Scotty Kennedy.
As the colts breezed by, Scotty gave out a great sigh.
“Boy,” he said. “I’d give anything to own one of those horses.”
Mr. Speers looked him over carefully.
“Which one would you take if you had the chance?”
Scotty watched them go by again, and then pointed. “That one,” he said.
“Okay,” snapped R. J., all business. “She’s yours for what you’ve got in your pocket!”
Scotty slowly turned out his pockets. He had a quarter, a dime, and two pennies. He blushed. But Mr. Speers had his hand out, and Scotty had a race horse.
A couple of weeks later the filly, whose name was Omar’s Gift, won a $500 sprint at Whittier Park. Three weeks after that she Won the $2,000 Manitoba Futurity.
“Things like that,” explained one friend, telling that story, “explain why he isn’t a millionaire—even if he does come pretty close once in a while.”
You can judge a man by the employees he keeps, and R. James Speers is a man who keeps them. The Speers organization is closely knit and intensely loyal. His official racing family has remained essentially the same since he started business, although some men have left him to go on to American racing’s best posts.
Charles F. Roe, his general manager, has been with Speers for 22 years, while the other office staff members, Fred Smith and Jack Smithers, have been there 22 and 21 years respectively. Fred Johnson, the chartered accountant who keeps his finger on the widespread Speers interests, has been looking after the firm’s affairs for 24 years.
Bill Singleton, who has charge of the gates on all Speers tracks, has been performing that task for 24 years. George Schilling has been pre-
siding steward at all their race meetings for 21 years. Jim Donovan, the gnarled Irish starter, has sent every field on its way over those tracks for 20 years.
Lou Davies, the only racing chart maker in North America who doesn’t make his charts for the Racing Form, has been working for Speers for 21 years. For that matter, Len Coghlin, at the St. Boniface stockyards, has handled every steer which the Speers organization has sold in 26 years.
But in seniority the granddaddy of them all is Harry Rudd, a quiet, competent man, whose actual place in the Speers office is somewhat nebulous.
Rudd was just a few weeks off the boat from England when he got his job in the Speers office at Old Battleford in 1908. He was startled by the slapdash methods of commerce in the West, and worried by his new employer’s frequently expressed wish that all business details should be presented briskly and concisely.
While Rudd still was learning the ropes, Speers swarmed happily into the Tramping Lake political fray, as mentioned before.
The day after the polls closed, Mr. Speers strode wearily into his office. “Well, Rudd,” he asked, “how do we stand?”
Young Mr. Rudd glanced at a sheet of paper in front of him, recalled his employer’s wishes for brevity, took a deep breath and said:
“You’ve spent five and a half months of your own time; you’ve
spent $10,500 of your own money; you owe for 1,100 gallons of beer for German picnics at Grosswerder and Cactus Lake; the opposition has arrested three of your workers and one of them still is in jail; you’re sued for $50,000 libel and you’re licked by 239 votes.”
“Young man,” said the delighted Speers, putting an arm over the boy’s shoulder, “you have a job with me for the rest of your life.”
He’s Busy Taking It Easy
To his intense disgust, an overworked heart slowed down Mr. Speers 18 months ago, and again this spring. It takes Mrs. Speers, who married him 39 years ago, their two charming daughters, and the medical men to keep him from overworking the heart some more.
But, even when they had him confined to his home, they couldn’t restrain him from offering his salty comment on current events and his own business.
A young man was sitting with him one day, describing the hundreds ot tons of rich hay that were being packed into the barns at the Speers ranch. “If you had that hay at the New Orleans race track this winter, you could sell it for $75 a ton,” said the young man, ignoring the fact that the Speers ranch is several thousand miles from New Orleans.
“Yes,” grumped R. James Speers, “and if I had Lake Louise in hell, I could sell it for a dollar a glass.”