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SC Rewind: The Maple Leaf Trot

Published: September 9, 2017 10:36 am ET

Last Comment: September 13, 2017 11:43 am ET | 1 Comment(s) | Jump to Comments

In this week's Rewind Robert Smith takes a look back in time to a special Maple Leaf Trot edition from almost 50 years ago. He also revives some early year history of this great annual event.

Saturday, September 16, 2017 marks a special day in Canadian harness racing, especially if you are among the many who love to see a good trotter. The featured event at Mohawk that evening will be the 2017 version of The Maple Leaf Trot, a parade of the best aged trotters the sport has to offer. Its long history places it in a very special category.

If annual races have birthdays, The Maple Leaf Trot must be nearing its 65th. I believe to be totally factual this year's edition will be number 66 or close to it. The race began back in 1950 and was first raced as "The Maple Leaf Cup". The first four editions were at the old fabled Thorncliffe Park in Toronto. In those days it was always raced in the afternoon as night racing had yet to begin in Ontario.

When Thorncliffe closed after the 1953 season, the race was continued and moved to Old Woodbine as it was then known and later became Greenwood. The first winner at the new locale for a purse of $3,500 was Ben Boy, the subject of an earlier Rewind. For the next two years it was not held. In the years that have followed, it has always been Ontario's top rated event for the trotting gait as it eventually dropped the word "Cup". I personally kind of like the old name.

As the interest in harness racing in Ontario grew, so did the purses offered for all races and in particular the headline events. Along with larger purses came more participants from the U.S. Although the race's signature symbol is the Canadian Maple Leaf, a lot of times the money has made its way to the United States.

In the Greenwood winner's circle Earl Laird and his driver Jimmy Cruise are greeted by Ed Bradley, OJC Director of Racing (left) and George C. Hendrie, President of the Jockey Club holding the silverware presented for winning the 1968 Maple Leaf Trot. (Harness Horse Happenings)

​By 1968, 49 years ago, the race had become a very popular affair. The purse had risen beyond the $30,000 mark and each year large fields contested the event. In 1968, a cast of 11 starters made up the field. The winner was an eight-year-old black gelding named Earl Laird. He was owned by Joan Cruise of Westbury N.Y. and trained and driven by her husband, Jimmy Cruise. While the couple were Americans by birth (from Shepherdsville, Kentucky) and always lived on the U.S. side, they were not strangers to Canadian horse folk.

Dating back to the 1940's, Cruise had wintered in Toronto along with his family as he raced at Dufferin Park. Mr. Cruise was among the most accomplished horsemen on both sides of the border for several decades. In 1968 Earl Laird was the sport's top aged trotter. In his long career, the gelded son of Jean Laird earned $477,000 for the Cruise clan. The name Earl had special significance in the family as Mrs. Cruise's father was Earl Daugherty and their son -- also a horseman -- was Earl Cruise.

Jimmy Cruise had a special tie to a Canadian horse that literally launched the Post WWII era of harness racing. That horse was Blue Again, the winner of the 1946 Golden West Pace in California. This famous race for a then record $50,000 saw Cruise as a catch driver pilot Blue Again to victory over a huge field of 20 horses and earn the biggest prize for Windsor, Ont.-based owner Warren Leatherdale.

Cruise and his bride were married just a few days prior to this event and the monies received for winning this race both from the owner and the track provided a nice nest egg for the newlyweds. The bride's father was to have an entry in the big race but a serious injury just a short time before the race day resulted in him being euthanized. This freed up Cruise for the opportunity to drive Blue Again and he obviously made the best of it.

Track Record Equalled

Earl Laird trotted that night in 2:02 flat to equal the existing Greenwood track record for trotting set in the 1966 Maple Leaf Trot by Quebec-based Sprite Kid and driver Roger White. Camper, one of the participants in this race was the current holder of the three-year-old trotting record of 2:02.1, just a tick short of the all-age record.

The win was accomplished in dramatic fashion as world champion Earl Laird travelled four-wide on the final turn to whip 11 crack rivals and capture the 17th edition of the Classic. It was a great race, typical of the excellence seen annually in this event.

Results of the 1968 Maple Leaf Trot - Purse $32,800
Raced on Saturday July 27, 1968 at Greenwood Raceway, Toronto

1. Earl Laird (Jimmy Cruise)
2. Governor Armbro (Joe O'Brien)
3. Stereo Hanover (Jack Bailey)
4. Amastar
5. Murray Mir
6. Fresh Yankee
7. Camper
8. Spindletop Joe
9. Le Chant
10. Real Speed
11. Flamboyant
12. Silver Nib Lee

Time: 2:02

In just five short years the Maple Leaf Trot purse almost doubled when the 1973 renewal went for a record $62,800. Times were lowered almost every year. In the above photo Flower Child sets a new Greenwood track record of 2:00 2/5 as driver Joe O'Brien gains his first win in the annual Classic. In the previous year's edition this same horse and driver finished second to Speedy Crown (Beissinger) in 2:00 3/5.

Down through the years many great contests have been recorded in the annual Maple Leaf Trot races. This year should be no exception.

Who Is It ?

Can you correctly identify this pair of fine looking gentlemen ? Two clues; this is a father-son combo and the one on the right is NOT John Wayne.

The correct answer will appear during the coming week.

September 13, 2017 - 11:43 amThis week's Who Is It? was

This week's Who Is It? was the father-son duo of a much younger version of Jimmy Cruise on the right and his father Hardy on the left. This vintage photo was taken back in their native Kentucky.

This of course is the same gentleman who won the 1968 Maple Leaf Trot.

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