SC Rewind: The O.S.S. Is Born
Published: January 23, 2016 8:43 am ET
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In this week's Rewind Robert Smith takes a look back to 1973 and 1974 when the Ontario Sires Stakes Program was first introduced and then became a reality.
This Rewind is the first of an ongoing series of stories about the earlier years of the O.S.S. Further editions will appear throughout the coming year.
This winner's circle was a happy gathering on June 1, 1974 as the first O.S.S. event became history. The Hon. John Clement on the far right welcomes Robra Glider and co-owner Ron Feagan to make a trophy presentation. Assisting is Garden City hostess Pat Cranston. Unfortunately I do not have a name for the winning caretaker.
On September 24, 1973 the Hon. John Clement, Minister of Consumer and Commercial Relations, made a landmark announcement on behalf of the Ontario Provincial Government. He outlined the brand new Ontario Sires Stakes Program (referred to as O.S.S.) that would come into being midway through the following summer racing season. In terms of historical happenings and milestones, I think this date and the subsequent happenings far surpasses anything that has happened in the modern age of our sport.
In making his announcement, Mr. Clement cited several reasons for the institution of this program and indicated the need for increased breeding of quality Standardbred horses in Ontario and also that the flow of Canadian stock and dollars to the United States needed to be curtailed. He also noted that similar programs in several U.S. jurisdictions had placed the Ontario breeding industry at a competitive disadvantage.
Dating back to the late 1960's, the Ontario Government had been petitioned for a new program by nearly every segment of the horse industry. Some requests simply fell on deaf ears while others were received with varying interest. In short, very little progress was made as the years ticked on.
Finally in 1973 it seemed that the proverbial "time had come" and the whole matter was turned over to the Ontario Racing Commission. Dr. Glen Brown, a well-known figure in racing circles was appointed to the O.R.C. for a two year term*, undoubtedly at the suggestion of some of the then current board members such as Max Webster. It was known that Dr. Brown was among those actively pushing for an O.S.S. program. Shortly after this move, the late Chas. McNaughton was made ORC Chairman. His efforts along with several others who followed such as Norman E. "Pete" Hardy and the aforementioned Hon. John Clement were very instrumental in getting this great program started and certainly should be remembered for their efforts.
(* The two-year term for Dr. Brown lasted 11 years.)
One of the first orders of business was to establish an Advisory Board (shown below) which included representatives from both the Standardbred and Thoroughbred sections. Dr. Brown was made Chairman. While the initial deliberations went well, the group eventually became bogged down as the two groups interests were quite far apart. The Standardbred program was easily defined as it used the New York Sire Stakes as a model. The Thoroughbred folks seemed intent on basically hanging on to what they already had in place with a few enhancements which would result in enhanced purses.
Finally "crunch" time came when the ORC scheduled a two-day meeting in Toronto. When Chairman Brown reported little progress, Mr. McNaughton instructed Dr. Brown and Thoroughbred owner Vern Martin of Paris, Ont. to go home that evening and lay out a program for both breeds. Mr. Martin had a condo near Maple Leaf Gardens and the two went there and finalized the blueprint for the O.S.S. The following day their plan was presented and accepted by the ORC. It was to be administered by the Advisory Committee along with ORC staff, under the direction of the late Wm. R. "Bill" McDonnell.
The administrative part was not all that easy. Of course each track wanted the three-year-old colts and geldings' "glamour boy" events and the choicest of dates. The smaller tracks were at times difficult to accommodate as they had to post a portion of the purse so wanted to avoid weekdays and less desirable divisions such as two-year-old trotters. In an attempt to please most of the parties, serious efforts were put forth to offer other incentives to balance out the schedule. In very short order, wherever and whenever the O.S.S. travelling show appeared, larger than usual crowds were on hand.
The First Sires Stakes Are Held At Garden City
A view of the Garden City grandstand where the first ever O.S.S. event took place on June 1, 1974, when the track was 10 years old.
Finally on the evening of Saturday, June 1, 1974 the long wait was finally over. A crowd of 6,577 fans had gathered at Garden City Raceway near St. Catharines to witness history in the making. The first ever Ontario Sires Stakes event was a major part of that evening's ten race card. The somewhat logical choice for the inaugural event was the three-year-old colts and geldings division. A total of 22 entries had made their final starting payment which meant that the group would be split into two divisions.
Up for grabs was a total of $67,522 divided in half with each race winner to receive the tidy sum of $16,880.50. Those were numbers that previous Ontario colt owners racing at home had not seen too often. Most if not all of the participants easily recalled the day when the figure being offered for a single win would have been considered a decent season's earnings. The beauty of it all was that it had just begun.
In the opening division somewhat of an upset occurred when the circuit's top dash winning and money leading driver Ron Feagan unleashed his colt Robra Glider at the head of the stretch. From fifth spot he finally overtook the pacesetting favourite J R Blaze right at the wire to gain a neck victory. The photo showed J R Blaze and Greg Wright second with J C Volo owned by Donald Campbell of Wardsville and driven by Wm. Hicks third. Time of the historic mile was 2:04.3 as the son of Meadow Gene - Rich Melody made his season's debut for co-owner Bruce Smith, who shared ownership with driver Feagan. Outstanding at two, this was the colt's first start of the 1974 campaign.
In the second division, the outcome was bit more predictable but still provided a hard-fought contest and an even faster time than in the opener. Veteran Canadian-born horseman Clint Hodgins, who had been racing almost exclusively on the U.S. side for several decades, obviously saw the value in the new O.S.S. program and decided to 'throw his hat in the ring'. Hodgins, who was 67 years of age, showed the younger drivers that he still had not lost his touch as a driver. Driving Terry Parker, a colt that he owned, bred and trained, Hodgins left smartly and immediately assumed command. Although challenged throughout the mile he was never headed, leading the entire trip which stopped the timer in a swift 2:03.1. On hand to preside over the winner's circle festivities was O.J.C. President John Mooney as the participants inked their names in the record books.
Outstanding in defeat was the Good Flyer colt Armbro Odyssey, who was parked the entire mile outside Terry Parker but still hung on to earn second money for owner-driver Jim Rankin. Finishing third was Paulas Peanut, driven by Wm. Wellwood for his young daughter Paula. Bred and raised by the Wellwood family, this colt soon became a sweetheart of the O.S.S. fans. The largest crowd of the season watched the evening's proceedings and in the process set three new wagering records.
On hand to present the first ever O.S.S. trophy to a then 32-year-old Ron Feagan was the Hon. John Clement, Minister of Consumer and Commercial Relations. He was the person who had so proudly announced the new program some eight months prior to this momentous evening; it was now a reality. Mr. Clement, who hailed from nearby Niagara Falls, was in his home territory. He is acknowledged as being the person who 'carried the ball' for racing within the Provincial cabinet.
Another architect of the new and long awaited program watched the evening unfold from his spot in the Garden City paddock located just beyond the clubhouse turn. Dr. Glen Brown, who had worked so diligently on behalf of all of the parties, chose a slightly lesser profile. He was obviously proud of what he and his committee had assembled and while no one could see into the future, he was certain that this was the start of a great new era in Canadian and particularly Ontario harness racing. The future was now, as an estimated $1.7 million dollars in purse money was being offered for the inaugural season's series.
At the close of the evening, well removed from the eyes and ears of the media, a happy Ron Feagan approached Dr. Brown and delivered a simple yet poignant parting statement. "I didn't think I would ever see a race worth that much money for Ontario-sired colts."
I thank Dr. Brown now some 42 years later for sharing that moment and also for his yeoman service all those many years ago. It seems that back then Industry officials and Government groups worked as teams and partners, not adversaries.
In a few months this year's events will mark the start of the 43rd consecutive season of competition for the now famous Ontario Sires Stakes.
An advisory Board was set up with the following people representing a wide range of interests within the Industry.
Chairman: Dr. J. Glen Brown; Member, Ontario Racing Commission
E.J. Boland - Ont. Standardbred Improvement Assoc.
John C. Lang - Can. Standardbred Horse Society
Warren Beasley - Can. Thoroughbred Horse Society
Les Ehrlick - Ont. Harness Horsemen's Association
H.W. Hatch - Horsemen's Benevolent Assoc.
John J. Mooney - National Assoc. Racetracks, Ont. Div.
William Rowe - Harness Tracks of Ontario Assoc.