A Bit of the Past as a Present to the Future

A Bit of the Past as a Present to the Future

I was sitting on George Stephenson Jr.’s deck, having a beer, when he told me the craziest bar room event I’ve ever heard – a phenomenon so ridiculous, so completely goofy, that it lasted 30 years. A phenomenon so outrageous, a group of us decided to bring it back for the summer. 

And it was started by his Dad, George Sr.

The story goes like this.

In the mid-’80s, George Stephenson and some friends were having a beer on a Friday at lunch at the St Louis Hotel. The St Louis housed a classic tavern in the basement of a classic hotel on the edge of downtown. By “classic” I mean it wasn’t where the foodies went; it wasn’t where the high rollers went. It was where beer was served on tap and on terry cloth. They served chicken and chips and beer. That’s it. No wine, no green vegetables, and if there was any gluten lying around, they’d put that in the chicken.

There were two main groups who went to the St Louis: city hall employees came across the alley and oil and gas folk who liked things a bit more lowbrow. 

A few blocks down the road was the Petroleum Club, where the high rollers had memberships. So, they branded the St Louis Tavern the “East Side Petroleum Club.”

George Sr. was a classic sales guy – he sang, he played piano, he knew a million jokes, and told great stories. “Dad was the go-to emcee for almost every event anywhere within driving distance of Calgary,” George Jr. said, “He raised money for every worthy cause for as long as I can remember.”

But back to the phenomenon.

“Dad started doing these horse races as a joke for the guys around his table. He wrote down some horse names on a napkin and passed it around and people initialled their favorite horse and put down a quarter. And then Dad called the race.”

“But where were the horses?” I asked.

“There weren’t any,” said George Jr.

“But how did he know who won?” 

“He just made it up.”

“He just pulled it out of his…. “

“Yup,” George Jr. said. “He called the race, the table yelled, and someone made a huge sum of two dollars in quarters.”

And so it began. 

“Other tables wanted in and within a few months, someone got him on the tavern microphone so the entire bar could play. A few years in, Dad had sound effects, songs, and the line up went out the front door on Fridays at lunch.”

“For imaginary races?”

“That’s right,” explained George Jr. “Dad did four races in an hour of jokes, stories, and songs. During the Olympics, the BBC did a story and Dad was a worldwide phenomenon.”

“For horses that didn’t exist?”

“Yup. The entire bar would be standing and screaming for their horses. Dad would have photo finishes, contested finishes… it was massive.”

I couldn’t believe it. For 30 years, every Friday at lunch, George Stephenson called imaginary horse races at the St Louis. Everyone went. The mayor went. The premier went. (Okay, it was the same guy.) The high rollers went. The Calgary Flames went. “When George called them, you would swear he could see the real race,” said former Flames captain Jim Peplinski. “It was so ridiculous, it was perfect.”

And so, back in May, when the group behind the Best of Calgary – of which the Kelly Brothers is a part – was devising this year’s series of interactive labs, relaunching the St. Louis horse races made the list. The May event sold out in minutes, so we decided to extend the races throughout the summer.

That’s right, every Friday throughout July and August, we’re reviving George Stephenson’s Horse Races at the St Louis. In the process, we’re raising money for the In The Lead program, which pairs mentors in a variety of industries with high school students.

Tickets can be had here: https://www.eventbrite.ca/e/st-louis-hotel-throwback-horse-racing-tickets-64944273069

It’s as ridiculous as it’s always been. 

The folks at Calgary Municipal Land Corporation (CMLC) have opened the St. Louis to allow this to happen. And Hotel Arts caters it.

You get some chicken, some beer and some chips. Nothing else. (Okay, we also have cider. It’s our only concession.)

Every Friday at noon, you can go to the St Louis and get a racing form that looks like this:

For a couple of the races we play a tape of George from days gone by.

And we have guest race callers. Former CTV news anchor Barb Higgins was our guest last week. This week, Global meteorologist Jodi Hughes is our caller. She remembers going to the bar with her dad Jimmy Hughes who was a great friend of George’s. If I know Jimmy, Jodi may or may not have been of drinking age. 

And we laugh. 

It’s our nod to the great people who come before us. Who built this city, who raised money for this city, and who love a city crazy enough to get behind horses that don’t exist.

It’s a ridiculous laugh for all of us there.

And we’re helping some Calgary kids who could use a break. 

Maybe someday they’ll tell a story about us.

Thanks George.

And thanks George Jr. for the beer.