Thursday, 11 January 2024 23:43

Unyielding Determination: Alberta Jockey Chris McGregor's Road to Hall of Fame Glory

Chris McGregor leading the pack at Stampede Park Chris McGregor leading the pack at Stampede Park

Year after year retired Alberta jockey Chris McGregor would drive past the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame on the east side of monotonous Highway 2 just outside of Red Deer as he mostly plied his trade between Calgary and Edmonton.

“I was curious and kept thinking it would be really special if I could ever get in,” said McGregor.

“I stopped once but the doors were locked.”

They aren’t locked anymore. McGregor was just announced as one of this year’s inductees joining a long list of Who’s Who in Alberta sports including three other legendary jockeys: Johnny Longden, Jimmy Fitzsimmons and Sandy Shields.

The official ceremony will take place on May 24.

“It really hasn’t sunk in yet,” said McGregor, 64, who retired in 2006 with 2,248 victories and whose mounts won $13.2 million from his illustrious career which spanned from 1979 to 2006.

“It’s really great. It was great just to get nominated. And to get in as an athlete is so very special.”

Twice - in 1990 and 1992 - McGregor won more races than any other rider in Canada winning 229 races in 1990 and 204 races two years later.

In both of those seasons he was a finalist for Sovereign Awards as Canada’s best rider.

He also won just about every stakes race in Alberta including the Canadian Derby twice: in 1995 with Sovacianto and again in 2000 with Scotman. In 1990 alone he won 11 stakes races.

But it wasn’t an easy ride for a jockey who saw thoroughbred racing for the first time in 1976 when he was just 16 years old at Millarville during a family camping trip where a one-day card was featured at the town’s annual fair.

“I remember thinking to myself “I’m the right size. I only weigh about 112 pounds. I’m an athlete. I could probably do that,” said McGregor, who was also an accomplished boxer and kick boxer before he fell in love with horse racing at Millarville as he watched in awe and hope.

Boxing and kick boxing gave the already ultra-emulous McGregor even more desire to succeed.

“Chris wants to win every race he’s in and he gets mad when he doesn’t,” his late top agent John Heath said in an Edmonton Journal article. “He almost treats every race like it was a fight. He’s very competitive. He doesn’t like to lose.”

A very strong rider, with all the time he spent in the gym, he was already super fit.

But it took a lot of perseverance.

Leaving school at 16 years of age - much to the chagrin of his parents Hugh and Pauline who adopted Chris in Lebanon when Hugh was working in the Middle East in oil exploration. Chris’ adoption came a year after they had also adopted Chris’ brother Mark and a daughter, Josette.

“We couldn’t have kids ourselves and we wanted children,” said Pauline of her husband and her reason for turning to adoption.

“Chris with born with a heart defect. At 11 months old he only weighed 11 pounds.

“He was very frail and very thin.”

But his desire was always huge.

“I tried as hard as I could with every horse I rode,” said McGregor, who got his first racetrack job with Gordon Connolly, who trained a small five-horse stable. “Favourites. Longshots. Big races. Small claiming races. It didn’t matter. I gave every horse a shot. Even if it was just to finish fifth and let the owner of the horse enough money to save the jock fee. Giving up and finishing sixth instead of fifth just isn’t right.

“I was always super competitive at every thing I did,” said McGregor, who grew up in Calgary right next door to longtime Calgary horse racing and chuckwagon announcer Joe Carbury, who is also in the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame.

Now living in Cochrane - just west of Calgary - McGregor had a temperament to match.

“I didn’t have the best temper. I got mad when I lost.”

He also got angry after he spent the first four years of his life at the racetrack and still wasn’t given a chance to ride in a race.

“I worked hard at the track. I groomed horses for two years,” he said of his job at the end of a pitchfork shovelling straw and horse manure. “Then I was allowed to gallop horses in the mornings. But still nobody would give me a chance to ride the horses I worked in the mornings in a race.

Instead, he was continually passed by in favour of more seasoned riders.

“It hurt my heart,” said McGregor. “I felt used. I was really getting depressed.”

Finally, trainer Dale Saunders, one of Alberta’s all-time leading conditioners whom McGregor worked for three years, gave him that opportunity and McGregor responded. Riding Semi Poll on October 17, 1979 - just as the fall meet in Calgary was entering its final month - McGregor won with his first opportunity.

“The horse paid $32 to win. Not many people thought he had a chance.”

Extremely polite, accommodating and talkative, McGregor only won one more race - from just 30 mounts - in 1979.

But he took off the following year and was Alberta’s leading apprentice winning 64 races from 665 mounts.

McGregor was also Alberta’s top apprentice the following year. But after he lost his apprentice allowance bug live mounts became a rarity. In 1982 he only got 136 opportunities.

“When I didn’t have the bug anymore, nobody wanted me.

“In the mornings they all wanted me to gallop their horses but when it came to race time the trainers turned to more seasoned riders.”

Discouraged, McGregor rode in small Alberta fair meets like High River and Grande Prairie. Then he went to ride in Saskatchewan where he won 109 races in 1985 and was that province’s leading rider before returning to Alberta.

In 1987 he took off. For good.

McGregor won 176 races that year at Edmonton and Calgary winning at a remarkable rate of 24 per cent. He also finished in the top three 56 per cent of the time that season.

A hard worker, McGregor would show up at the track at 5 a.m.

“Often I’d be the only rider there at that time of the day. I wondered where everybody else was. Racing was fun. The track is where I wanted to be.”

McGregor’s best years were from 1990 to 1993. In each of those years his mounts earned over $1 million.

While McGregor rode as hard as he could with all of his mounts including cheap claiming horses, he also rode some of the best horses to ever run in Alberta including Majestic Horizon, who won 21 races - 10 of those in 1990 alone - Arctic Laur, who also won 21 races and Roll On Briartic, who won 23 of just 47 career starts.

In 1990 Majestic Horizon and McGregor won the Alberta Derby, the Hoofprint On My Heart Handicap and the Beaufort.

In 1991 Majestic Horizon - with McGregor still on his back - also won the Speed to Spare, the richest race in Alberta for older horses, and in 1992 took the Pick 3 Classic.

Following up his sensational 1990 season McGregor won 188 races in 1991, 204 in 1992 and 150 in 1993.

In addition to Majestic Horizon’s stakes wins in 1991, McGregor also captured the Edmonton Juvenile with I Want Fifty Three, the Bellevue Handicap with Lady Alta, the Western Canada and Alberta Breeders’ on Briartic Romance, the Chariot Chaser aboard Ever Thus, and the Ken Pearson Memorial with Poles Candy.

The 1991 season was hardly all roses. On Oct. 3 of that year he went down in a spill just past the finish line at Calgary’s Stampede Park when another horse came over on him. He had three crushed vertebrae and a broken neck. As well as having to cope with his injuries he was also very depressed in the hospital hearing all his stake horses were winning. On Nov. 8 he checked himself out of the hospital. The doctors wanted him to stay another 2 or 3 weeks.

The injury didn’t stop him. Just like a motorcycle accident earlier in his career in the spring of 1981 didn’t stop him when he ended up with a broken ankle. wrist, arm and nose in addition to severe facial lacerations.

In 1992 McGregor struck with I Want Fifty Three in the Ky Alta and the Western Canada Handicap, took the Junior Miss with Dusty Deputy and Devoted Brass in the Breeders’ Cup Alberta Juvenile.

The following year McGregor started the racing season in Toronto where he won 16 races at Woodbine and Greenwood showing he could ride anywhere.

When he returned to Alberta in the spring of 1993 McGregor won the Herald Gold Plate and the Speed To Spare with Arctic Laur, the Duchess of York with Wishes Three, the Princess Margaret with Tiny Boots and the Saskatchewan Derby riding Isntthatnice.

It just went on and on. One winner after another until he retired in the spring of 2006.

A natural lightweight rider who didn’t have to reduce and lose weight like 90 per cent of other jockeys, McGregor had a great agent in Heath, who put him on horses that could win, and he was extremely talented. But it was his unfailing desire that deservedly put him into the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame.

“I just never gave up,” said McGregor, an inspiration to everyone to never give up. “It was hard for a long time when I was just getting started. But I loved horse racing too much to quit.”

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