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SC Rewind: Thorncliffe Park, Pt. 2

Published: September 12, 2015 9:28 am ET

Last Comment: September 12, 2015 1:47 pm ET | 1 Comment(s) | Jump to Comments

In this week's Rewind Robert Smith recalls the once popular Thorncliffe Park and the role it played in popularizing harness racing in Metropolitan Toronto some 65 years ago. This is the second and concluding edition of a two-part story.

The good trotting mare Sheila Lee and driver Dr. John Findley appear in the Thorncliffe Park winner's circle during the 1951 season. "Doc" is one of a very few remaining horsemen who raced at the fabled Toronto oval. This win formed a 7-4 Daily Double but unfortunately the payoff shown on the infield board is obscured by the hub rail.

When the old Thorncliffe Raceway in Toronto was reopened in 1950 a new era in Canadian harness racing began. The site, which had a long and interesting history, began as a farm owned by Robert T. Davies, the wealthy founder of the Dominion Brewing Company. He had been an avid participant in horse racing under the name Thorncliffe Stable, racing both thoroughbred and standardbred horses. Following his passing in 1916, his estate sold the property to U.S. interests who built a racetrack facility which opened in 1917.

After decades of intermittent activity of both types of racing, the site sat dormant for many years until its reopening in 1950. The group involved with its rebirth were dedicated to introducing summer harness racing on a grand scale in Toronto, much of which would involve night time racing. While the overall project was a success, racing under the lights did not materialize. Then Premier Leslie Frost seemed dedicated to blocking any such occurrence.

Thorncliffe's inaugural season was undoubtedly its most successful. A new half-mile track was added as well as numerous other amenities which brought the facility into the modern age. With a minimum purse of $500 there was no shortage of horses. Foremost on the first season agenda was the introduction of two major stake races. Scheduled in the latter part of the seven-week meeting were headline events for both gaits, and the purses were well above anything ever seen before in the Province.

The trotting signature race was called "The Maple Leaf Cup Trot" which still exists to this day but for many years now without the "Cup" in its name. The first ever edition of this race with a purse of $5,000 drew a full quality field and was raced on a Thursday, drawing the largest weekday crowd and highest mutuel handle of the meeting. After a torrid struggle of two heats at different distances, a pair of winners emerged. Victorious in the first heat at one mile was Morris Mite handled by Eph L'Heureux for owner Orville Corbeil of Montreal in 2:08.1. In the longer dash the second place finisher Adeline Hanover, a U.S. invader, took the longer 1-1/16 mile race in a new track record of 2:13 2/5. Owned by the T.J. Zornow stable of Pittsford, N.Y. the aged mare was catch driven by Thorncliffe's leading teamster Harold Wellwood. A coin toss to break the tie gave the beautiful trophy to Mr. Corbeil.

The signature race for pacers was assigned the name "The Canadian Cup Pace" for a purse of $12,500. It carried an overall purse of $15,000; this amount was divided with $1,500 being allocated to a consolation race and also included a $500 payment to the winning driver. On August 12th which was a Friday, the big race took place. So large was the purse it was advertised as the largest ever offered in Canada up to this point in history. (Just why it wouldn't be held on Saturday appears to be a bit of a mystery?)

The field for this race drew eight starters, with five being ship-ins from the U.S. which was certainly a rarity. In the opening one-mile heat the winner was the great Canadian-owned Dr. Stanton who had done all of his previous racing on the U.S. side due to the lack of competition in his home country. Time for the mile was 2:06.1 with The Diplomat second and Linda's Boy third. So convincing was the effort by Dr. Stanton that many in the crowd were certain of the outcome of the second heat well before

An aerial view of the finish of the second heat of the Canadian Cup Pace. The winner Linda's Boy (Tolhurst) is at the rail, far left is The Diplomat (James) second, Sam Hy (Wellwood) second from right is third with Dr. Stanton third from right fourth.

In the longer mile and one sixteenth dash the field remained well bunched throughout the race with the outcome undecided until the final strides. Finishing with a burst was the U.S. invader Linda's Boy and driver Lorne Tolhurst, who photoed out The Diplomat with Sam Hy (Wellwood) third and the heavily favoured Dr. Stanton hanging on for fourth. Again a coin toss was called and the handsome trophy went to Forest, Ont. owner Lindley Fraser owner of Dr. Stanton. The $500 prize for the winning drivers was split evenly between the two teamsters.

The two winning drivers display the trophy and their $250 prize for winning the first ever Canada Cup Pace. On the left is Lindley Fraser and on the right is Lorne Tolhurst.

In 1952 Thorncliffe officials were able to lure former Canadian horseman Clint Hodgins to participate in that year's Canada Cup race. That season he was campaigning a top horse named Prince Adios, owned by his brother Grant Hodgins of Clandeboye. Despite the overwhelming presence of the U.S. invader, a field of eight of the best horses available contested the Cup race. As expected Prince Adios dominated his competition winning both the one mile event and setting a new track record of 2:12.2 for the mile and one sixteenth second heat. Prince Adios later that season took a mark of 1:58 at Lexington.

This photo of the start of the 1952 Canada Cup shows seven of the eight entrants. Leading the way is Prince Adios (3) the eventual winner. Others in the picture are (1) Jean Dillon (Mehlenbacher), (5) The Diplomat (Rowntree), (6) Williamsburg (Zeron). Trailing horses in order Merry England (Apthorpe), Malcolm Hanover (Simmons), States Attorney (Dostie).

In the second and succeeding seasons, the purse structure at Thorncliffe dropped rather dramatically. The first season guaranteed minimum of $500 was reduced to $300 and for the most part remained the same. Apparently the economics were just not there. In spite of the decision to lower payouts, the racing still attracted the better stables and the crowds followed. It was a good solid place to race. Many of the top racing personalities of the day stabled at Thorncliffe. The father son duo of Wm. and Jack Herbert were prominent during these years as they unveiled a number of young prospects from their breeding operation. They also won several races with their aged star Oro G Herbert.

Today only a handful of those who personally recall this four-year period of summer racing remain, with people such as Keith Waples and Dr. John Findley coming to mind as well as Marcel Dostie. A few others such as Bill Galvin recall spending a few summers there during their youth along with Clint Galbraith and his late cousin Ken who were grooms for Hughie McLean. I am not certain about the status of Bob Hall, who served as announcer. Also two teenaged sisters Margaret and Pat Campbell showed that they were also pretty capable caretakers in a male-dominated occupation. The Campbells' star Argyel Grattan won his every start including the Canada Cup and was eventually ruled ineligible due to a lack of suitable competition.

On the afternoon of August 13, 1953 the last day of harness racing was held at Thorncliffe Park. The matinee affair was an interesting one and included a record-setting exhibition performance by The Hon. Earl Rowe, who piloted his team of trotting mares Celias Counsel and Volo Van to a Canadian record of 2:07.4. In the closing feature, a $2,000 Pace, Ruth Chips prevailed over her seven rivals in both heats. The mare's owner was Earl Barnes of Ailsa Craig and the driver was the legendary Barney Hughes. Another winner on the final day with modern day ties was Thor Grattan owned by Cliff Hie and Jack Gordon of Cobourg with Jack at the controls.

Although the Thorncliffe era lasted just four short years, it remains as a "jewel" in the history of Canadian harness racing. From here summer racing moved to Old Woodbine in 1954 and it of course eventually became Greenwood. The popularity of harness racing continued to grow and prosper for many years from this point onward.

Note: Today, the old racetrack site is commemorated by two streets named Grandstand Place and Milepost Place and the number of residential and commercial buildings that took on racetrack stable names like Churchill, Maple Glen and Willow Glen. Leaside Park and a wooded area cover the area to the south of the original racetrack. Beyond that nothing remains from the once famous track site except old pictures and fading memories.

Officials at Thorncliffe Park gather in this 1952 photo. Front row (L-R) 1-Hal B Watson, 2-Dr. J.H. Black (judge), 3-?, 4- Jim Brown (Gen. Mgr.), 5- Ed Webb (Race Sec.), 6-Bill Lawrason (Clerk of the Course), 7- Cliff Bradley (starter).
Back Row - (L-R) 1-Walter Smith, 2-?, 3- Bob Hall (announcer, later ORC lawyer), 4- Hugh Baxter (paddock judge), 5-Chas. Gilbert (equipment official), 6- ?, 7 -?, 8-?, 9-?, 10-Fred Willshare (timer) Photo, Michael Burns

If anyone in the reading audience can identify the missing names it would be greatly appreciated.

Pictured are Bobby Herbert and driver Jack Herbert in 1951 at Thorncliffe following a victory. As a freshman, Bobby Herbert started four times and won all of his engagements en route to a mark of 2:10.4 and earnings of $768 for owners Wm. and Jack Herbert of London. This is a fine example of the great photographic work done by HOF photographer Michael Burns Sr.

(All photos by Michael Burns)

September 12, 2015 - 1:47 pmThanks again Robert, Very

Thanks again Robert, Very interesting to me, especially the horse Williamsburg. Grey owned,I think by Parker Locke(son of famous foot doctor). I. All my grand parents lived in Williamsburg, ON. and my dad's father and my dad jogged horses on Parker's farm . Keep giving us these great articles on the past. The future doesn't look near as good !

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