SC Rewind: Memories Of Thorncliffe
Published: July 25, 2015 8:25 am ET
Last Comment: July 29, 2015 9:24 am ET | 2 Comment(s) | Jump to Comments
In this week's Rewind Robert Smith recalls a memorable milestone from 65 years ago which was 1950. That year witnessed the opening of Thorncliffe Raceway in the Don Valley area of suburban Toronto after being closed for decades.
This extended summer meeting marked the beginning of the modern era of harness racing in Ontario which continues to this day. This is the first of a two-part offering.
A view of the start of a race behind the Cadillac starting gate as captured by Thorncliffe's resident photographer. [This picture was given to me by Mr. Michael Burns Sr.]
When Thorncliffe Park in Toronto opened its doors to summer harness racing on the afternoon of July 3, 1950 it was a "giant" step toward the future in the sport. It marked the first time that an extended summer harness meeting had ever been held in Ontario. The revamped track located in the Leaside district of the city had been in existence for decades dating back to 1910 but had been idle for many years. It had often hosted Thoroughbred racing as well as multiple Grand Circuit harness meetings during the 1930's. This rejuvenation brought out some of the major racing operations from various parts of Canada and even a few U.S. horsemen shipped in for the meeting.
This was an exciting and eventful time for Canadian horsemen. The opportunity to race six days per week for a seven-week meeting was a proverbial 'dream'. With a minimum purse guarantee of $500 and a long list of early closing events, it was truly 'what the Doctor ordered'. (As a matter of interest the 1950 value of $500 is equal to approx. $5,000 today). In a lengthy article in the Harness Horse magazine just prior to opening day, the following statement was made: "It will be the biggest gathering of the trotting clans on this side of the line that the harness sport has ever seen."
A great deal of preparatory work preceded the opening. Two major projects involved the addition of a new half-mile main track which was constructed by the noted track builder Mr. J.S. Coates of Goshen, N.Y. This brought the number of tracks on site to a total of four, including a jogging and a training oval. Additionally nine new stables, each consisting of 50 stalls, were constructed to augment the ones already in existence. The competing horsemen would have plenty of room for tack and feed stalls after their horses were bedded down.
Opening day was held on Monday, July 3rd and the first race went to a horse named Dr. Rice, owned by long-time participant Parker Locke of Morrisburg, Ont. and was driven by Cecil Champion. The first day's races went off without a hitch and the featured events were a couple of two-heat affairs, each for a purse of $1,125. Four separate winners emerged. In the first division the winners were Buddy Hanover, owner driven by Wilbert Hopkins, with the second heat going to Flicka Volo and driver Wilfred Hughes for Marion and John Reid. In the second division, Lucy Lester took the opener for owner-driver Henry Corcoran of Kingston and in the second stanza, Oro G Herbert prevailed for co-owner Jack Herbert of London. The other winning drivers on this day were Honorat Larochelle, Harold McKinley and Eric Conley.
Early in the meeting, a series of early closing events were featured each week as all of the racing was held in the afternoons, six days per week. Although the plant had lights, night racing was not yet allowed. For the first time for many fans, the parimutuel betting system was used. Also a state of the art starting gate was in use, mounted on a Cadillac car and manned by resident starter C.R. "Cliff" Bradley. It was a Steve Philips creation, the man who originally invented the starting gate in the U.S. and had previously been in use at Fairmount Park in St. Louis. For some fans as well as horsemen, this was their first chance to see the mobile gate in action.
On July 27th, one of the first big days of the meeting saw two featured events for three-year-old trotters and pacers held called "The Vondale Cup". In the trotting event, which carried a purse of $3,120, just five starters contested the event. The winner in two straight heats was Van Baldwin, owned and driven by The Hon. Earl Rowe of Newton Robinson, Ont.
In the pacing event a bulky field of 12 vied for the slightly larger purse of $3,820. The overall winner was Carter Hy owned by Moore Bros. of Sarnia and driven by Marshall Moore. Their standing of 1-6 gave them the decision over Castle Brook, who ended the day with a win in the second heat but a seventh place finish in the opener cost them the win. Veteran Will Harvey was the driver for Hamilton furrier Louis Mack. Purses of this magnitude were a great boost to the competing horsemen as they were much larger than in previous years.
A smiling Marshall Moore (centre) accepts the Vondale Cup from Thorncliffe President Herb Hatch. Harold Wyatt of the Kroehler Furniture Co. is on the right. Carter Hy, owned by the Moore Bros. of Sarnia was the winning horse. (Harness Horse)
The leading driver at the inaugural Thorncliffe meeting was the then 43-year-old Harold Wellwood of Stratford. In addition to the driving and training duties for his rather large public stable, Harold also picked up a lot of catch drives, many resulting in wins. In his own stable were such venerable performers as Sam Hy, Mr. Oakley, Victor Henley, Carlisle Hanover and the two-year-old Fidelis Hanover. Late in the meeting he won the first ever Maple Leaf Cup Trot with a catch drive behind Adeline Hanover for the U.S. trainer Levi Harner. For his efforts Harold received a Chesterfield and chair set compliments of the Krohler Furniture Co. of Stratford. During this time a number of horsemen received a similar gift. I can recall talking to Harold many times about the Thorncliffe era. He said the upholstered pieces lasted "forever."
Thorncliffe's leading driver Harold Wellwood and Pine Ridge Louie reach the wire a winner. The driver's silks were provided by the Track (Michael Burns)
One rather novel idea was implemented at this first ever Thorncliffe meeting. The track supplied the driving silks and each race carried a different colour variation -- I believe determined by post position. While this may have been a worthwhile idea, it was not without its shortcomings. It seems that due to variations in the stature of drivers, many suits were ill-fitting. Those who showed up early got the best choice while others took what was left. Bert Madill, then of Arkona, Ont., won just one race that year at Thorncliffe and that was behind his own mare Winsome Chips. Bert's rather large soft hat was partially filled with a wool sponge to reduce it down to size!
Racing continued six afternoons per week with a few days washed out by the weatherman. The crowd sizes steadily increased as word spread of this new form of entertainment. With the new half-mile track in use, several speed tabs were recorded. During week two Sam Hy, driven by Harold Wellwood, toured the oval in 2:06.2 and was credited with the first track record. On July 18th Oro G. Herbert set the first season pacing record at 2:04.4 with Jack Herbert up. A few days later in a time trial, an exceptionally fast trotting mile of 2:05.3 was set by Morris Mite, handled by Eph L'Heureux for owner Ovila Corbeil of Montreal. This effort erased the existing trotting mark of 2:07 1/5 set just days earlier by Duke Volo handled by Henry Larochelle.
Oro G. Herbert and driver Jack Herbert thrilled the fans on a number of occasions with his speed and flashy style but he was also involved in a memorable race which he did not win. On the afternoon of August 4th, Goderich horseman Bill Gardner had his rather famous steed Huron Express in top form. Known to be a very fast horse but not always on his best behaviour, Gardner seemed to have everything in control in the opening heat. He had the big black pacer well under control and forged out a win over the Herbert entry. Overlooked by nearly everyone in the crowd he was home first paying $173.00 for a two dollar win ticket. In the second heat many more in the betting audience were eager to get in on a piece of a good thing but it did not happen. A recap of the day's racing in the Toronto Star said "In the second heat Huron Express jumped higher than 'Kelsey's Kite' and was soon out of contention, while Oro G went on to a win."
On August 19th the curtain came down on the opening season and racing fans bid a fond farewell to summer harness racing in Toronto. On the final day a Class 17 Pace with nine entrants went to the post for a purse of $2,000. The overall winner was J.L. Van owned by J.L. Waples & Son of Midland, Ont., getting the nod over Canada Direct and Wilmer Hillock. The winning driver of the feature on 'getaway' day was 26-year-old Keith Waples.
A rather small group of energetic and far sighted individuals were involved in the move to start up Thorncliffe Park. Their vision for the future paved the way to many advancements in our sport.
A further reminiscence about the Thorncliffe Park era will appear in an upcoming edition of Rewind
Officers For Thorncliffe Park
H.E. Hatch - President
James W Brown - Vice Pres./Gen Manager
Bert McLean - Secretary
Purvis Lawrason - Ass't. Secretary
Photos By Michael Burns
Publicity - Jim Coleman, Hal B. Watson
Racing Officials at Thorncliffe pause for a photo. From left: James Brown, Gen. Mgr.; Herb Hatch, President; Jim Coleman, Publicity and Hal B. Watson, Publicity