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SC Rewind: Racing Under The Lights

Published: June 28, 2014 8:29 am ET

Last Comment: June 28, 2014 10:23 am ET | 1 Comment(s) | Jump to Comments

This week's Rewind recalls a special date in Canadian harness racing history when night racing finally became a reality in Metropolitan Toronto.

The evening of Saturday, July 1, 1961 occupies a special spot in the long and colourful history of Canadian harness racing even though it may not be often quoted. On that date, for the first time ever, racing was conducted under the lights at the Old Woodbine track which later became Greenwood. Located on the shores of Lake Ontario, it was the unofficial "Capital" of the sport in Canada or at least Ontario for as long as it operated.

Many groups and individuals had lobbied long and hard to get permission from the Provincial Government to relax their stand and allow night time racing in Ontario. Despite their untiring efforts, a man named Premier Leslie Frost always said "NO!!"

Finally on May 17, 1961 night racing began in Ontario as Western Fair Raceway launched their inaugural meeting. Thus the Old Woodbine meeting became just the second approved in Ontario.

Despite the approval, a slight caveat or two remained. The races at Old Woodbine had to be completed by 10:00 p.m. One joking journalist wrote "Mr. Frost and his partners agreed to allow racing under the lights, having been apparently convinced that such action would not result in the complete corruption of our society as they obviously had suspected it might ..." Just the previous year, Mr Frost was quoted as saying " In my view enough gambling is done in the daylight ..."

The advent of night harness racing had come several decades prior to this time when in 1940 Roosevelt Raceway on Long Island, N.Y. started what is considered the first extended meeting. Later in the 1940's, Quebec ushered in racing under the lights and it flourished; first at Quebec City and later in Montreal. The long delay for Ontario authored by Mr. Frost was finally over.

With a huge crowd on hand for the July holiday weekend kickoff, the evening's first race was won by Piper Boy, the long-wearing roan gelding probably still remembered by many. Owned by Buff MacQuarrie of Fergus, Ont. and driven by Guelph native Norm Bayne, they took the lion's share of the $600 purse stopping the timer in 2:09.4. Today at the age of 82, Mr. Bayne is still living but unfortunately in very poor health. He is one of just a handful of drivers left who were participants on that evening many years ago.

A full card of eight races followed, featured by the "Inaugural Pace" to mark the momentous occasion. A three-division feature drew a total of 31 entrants with each race having approximately 10 starters, each with a nice purse of $3,200. The winners were Gene Putney, driven by "Frenchy" Leboeuf; Tami Herbert with Jack Herbert up, and the third and fastest went to Baron Atom and Neil McRann who stopped the timer in 2:04 flat. Other winning drivers that night not otherwise mentioned were Ron Feagan, Gord Kingston and Harold McKinley.

Baron Atom was indeed the complete star of this meeting as he went on to win an incredible six races. The four-year-old chestnut gelding, who started the year in the barn of Max Webster, was sold to The Soky Stables of Downsview where he had his best outings. The highlight of the first season under the Old Woodbine lights saw Baron Atom win the Canadian Cup Pace for a purse of $14,200. He paced home in 2:02.4, ahead of Dares Direct who was second and Lochinver King third.

The entire meeting was a huge success as dramatic increases in attendance and mutuel handle showed the preference for the arc light version of the sport. In 1960 the identical number of race dates drew some 230,000 fans while racing under the lights attracted nearly 110,000 more spectators. In the betting department the handle rose by $4 million to an all time high of $12,250,000. The track management responded to the "trend" and doled out $100,000 in increased purses, bringing the total to $467,100 for 1961. In short it was described as "The most successful meeting in Ontario history."

From a statistical standpoint, a number of horses, owners and horsemen had an excellent meeting. In the earnings department two rather famous brother acts led the way. The Armstrong Bros. of Brampton (then known as ABC Stable) took top honours when their modestly sized stable of 10 took home close to $ 45,000. Also The Miron Bros., a powerful Quebec stable moved into the Toronto track for an eight-day visit and in the process added some $15,000 to their coffers. A win in The Maple Leaf Trot plus an Invitation by Tie Silk and two Invitation victories by Champ Volo helped to pad their bankroll substantially.

In the driver's race, for the second straight year, Harold McKinley -- head trainer and driver for the ABC Stables took home the Carling Trophy and the accompanying $100 cheque. Following him in second place was another perennial favourite, "Jiggs" McFadden who specialized in catch driving. Third was young Duncan MacTavish, who handled the horses in his father Delbert's large stable.

I wonder how many people remember attending the races during this landmark season. You don't have to be 100 to have been there! I recall being in attendance about two weeks after the opening night described here today and seeing a two-year-old colt named Cole Tar pace a mile in 2:05 and change for Pete Miller. That was considered a pretty speedy trip over the old 3/4 mile strip.

These days are gone but certainly not forgotten.


A field of horses head down the stretch at Old Woodbine on July 1,1961. The huge crowd can be seen in the background, with a full grandstand and a large gathering on the apron.

 


By the sixth race the lights were in full effect. Marjean Chief, driven by 61 year old Duncan Campbell, leads the field. Campbell was no stranger to night racing as he was the leading driver that same year at Western Fair Raceway's inaugural night time meeting.

 


Neil McRann was the winner of the fastest mile on opening night under the lights at Old Woodbine when he registered a mile in 2:04 behind Baron Atom. Mr. McRann spent a lifetime in the sport following his father's interest. His green and white silks which prominently displayed his favourite shamrocks, gave just a hint of his Irish heritage. He passed away at the age of 82 in 2003.

 

June 28, 2014 - 10:23 amWill we ever see full

Will we ever see full grandstands again??


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