Imagine a racetrack bustling with business and energy. The grandstand is full, the betting windows are busy, and the horsemen and horses are stars. Now picture that same place as a barren ghost town.
By Perry Lefko
Imagine a racetrack bustling with business and energy. The grandstand is full, the betting windows are busy, the horsemen and horses are stars and on any given day you just might be able to see a prominent Hollywood celebrity in the crowd.
Now picture that same place as a barren ghost town.
Windsor Raceway, once a hub for big-league harness racing and among the most prominent tracks in North America, appears to be heading for a sad, sad ending.
On Friday, May 4, a few days after the conclusion of live racing at Windsor Raceway, the track’s management issued a press release announcing plans to cease operations on August 31. This drove a dagger into the hearts of horsemen who had already been stunned by the provincial government’s notice to end its slots at racetracks partnership at all of Ontario’s 17 tracks on March 31, 2013. Soon thereafter, the province pulled the plug on slots at the tracks in Windsor, Fort Erie and Sarnia effective April 30, 2012, but vowed to pay the tracks and their horsemen their respective 10 per cent commissions of slots revenues, amounting to between $3.5 million to $4 million apiece. So right now there are no slot machines at Windsor and no guarantee of another meet. And to think, this was once a track that had been the place to be for horse racing in southwestern Ontario.
Built by a group of people that included Al Siegel, owner of the Elmwood Casino (a Las Vegas-type showplace in town, albeit something of a misnomer because it didn’t have any gambling), Windsor Raceway opened for business on October 22, 1965. It happened during a boom in the Ontario horse racing industry, in particular for the standardbred side, with tracks dotting the landscape like sprouting flowers in bloom. But this would be a track unlike any others of its kind in the area, both for horsemen and bettors. This was the mecca, the palace, as opulent on the backside as the frontside. It was, in the words of Hall of Fame trainer Bob McIntosh, “a showplace.”
It featured a state-of-the-art, all-weather tartan racing surface that allowed for the introduction of winter racing and would be unaffected by inclement weather, and a five-eighths mile oval that produced snappy times and lifted the bettors out of their seats. An announced crowd of 5,136 attended opening day, which saw a horse called Castle Direct, driven by Fred Roloson, cross the wire first in the first race. The nine-race card had a handle of $194,204, which was darn good business for the day.
Windsor became the most-prominent racing plant next to the Greenwood/Mohawk circuit, offering racing from October through to April for its first 29 years of operation. On its 30 year anniversary, Windsor offered year-round racing. On a typical Sunday in the ‘80s, the handle would easily surpass $1 million.
As an added bonus in its first few years under the Siegel banner, the track routinely attracted celebrities such as Sophie Tucker, Frankie Laine and the Will Mastin Trio featuring Sammy Davis Jr., any one of whom might have been entertaining at the Elmwood but was chauffeured to the Raceway to appear on the in-house track television show for cross promotion. Siegel, the president and general manager, was all about marketing and promotion, and the TV production was years ahead of its time. Customers didn’t mind paying for the cost of parking or seating, including a higher price for the clubhouse side, because of all that was offered.
“It was the only game in town and people came out in droves,” recalls Marty Adler, who has been the track announcer there on and off since 1969. “They had ushers taking you to your seat and then they had ushers checking to see if you had a ticket if you were sitting in one of the seats. It got to the point where everything was a premium at the racetrack and it was an exciting place to go — it was the place to race. Horsemen wanted to race there... they were treated well. All the barns were heated. There was a great cafeteria. It was a pleasure to actually be at the racetrack. If you were stabled at Windsor Raceway you never had to leave the grounds. Everything was there for you — the blacksmiths, the veterinarians, the food to eat. In later years, they put up a dormitory for some of the grooms. It was a little community on to itself.”
“The facility was so great,” remembers Bob McIntosh. “Al Siegel knew how to take care of the patrons. He was into entertainment. The service was first class, the food was first class. The big gamblers were looked after and all the reporters were looked after. He did a great job managing that side and (his partners) did a great job on the other side.”
“It was brand new and built so efficiently for horsemen,” adds John Campbell, who has fond memories of Windsor from his youth growing up in nearby Ailsa Craig. “I was really fascinated with it — the paddock, the barns, the track kitchen… it was built with horsemen in mind. Even as kid I was amazed at that part of it and it had such a great racing program. They drew horsemen from all over Ontario, Michigan, Ohio and Illinois. There was a cross section of horses and horsemen, and when you factored in that they had Joe DeFrank putting the races together it all added up to a great racing program. It was quite a circuit for many, many years.”
DeFrank, whom some people referred to as the godfather of racing secretaries, moved on in later years to the Meadowlands and helped transform it into the greatest racing venue of its time.
Windsor had a signature race, The Provincial Cup, which began as a race for aged pacers in the evening. It later became an afternoon race for three-year-old pacers. Right from the beginning, it was a big event. The Cup had an initial purse of $15,000 — one of the biggest purses in Canada at the time, and attracted world superstar Cardigan Bay, a New Zealand-bred who had been bought by an American syndicate in the mid-60s and brought to the United States. He became a two-time winner of the Cup, along with other stars such as Isle of Wight and Young Quinn.
“It was always exciting to see those top horses come in from out of town and see how great they were, how great the program lines were, and just be amazed at that,” Campbell says fondly. The Provincial Cup would be one of the few races Campbell did not win in his career.
In later years the Cup was limited to the sophomore pacers and boasted a higher purse. As a result, the race featured stars such as Armbro Nesbit, Albatross, Cam Fella, On The Road Again, Falcon Seelster, Frugal Gourmet, Artsplace, Camluck, Western Hanover, Presidential Ball and Pacific Rocket, to name some of the most prominent ones.
Adler says one of the thrills he has had as the race announcer at Windsor has been calling the races of many future superstars because they came from McIntosh’s barn. McIntosh, the all-time leading winner of Breeders Crown races and conditioner of back-to-back U.S. Horse of the Year winners Artsplace in 1992 and Staying Together in 1993, has won the Provincial Cup four times... three years in a row starting in 1988 with Bond Street, and continuing with Mystery Fund and Camluck.
The place of Windsor Raceway on the North American racing scene at that time is evident when looking at the three-year-old racelines of one of racing’s all-time greats... Niatross. In that season (1980) Clint Galbraith chose to race him at just three Canadian tracks - Blue Bonnets in Montreal, Greenwood Raceway in Toronto, and at Windsor.
“I got to see the superstars of the future before they became superhorses,” Adler says with pride. “I’m the guy that called their first wins.”
Legendary drivers Shelly Goudreau, Greg Wright, Ray Remmen, Pat Crowe, and Keith Waples regularly drove there, along with future stars like Bill Gale and Campbell (who would go on to the Meadowlands in New Jersey and become the greatest money-winning reinsman of all time). In addition to the drivers, the track included prominent trainers such as McIntosh and his older brother Doug, Maury MacDonald, Gerry Bookmeyer Howard Parks, Lou Clark, Wayne Horner and brothers Rod, Dennis and Jerry Duford.
Brian Tropea, general manager of the Ontario Harness Horsemen’s Association, recalls how Windsor Raceway played a pivotal role in his career. He drove horses at the now-defunct Orangeville Raceway for a friend, Paul Adams, who had a dozen horses, some of whom didn’t have the talent to compete at Greenwood and Mohawk. They had a top trotter that did well at Windsor right away, but it took the rest of the stock some six weeks to match up with the speed level of the local stock. Tropea enjoyed success in that foray and won the meet. He remained there for almost 25 years.
“There were a ton of respected horse people that raced there with big stables,” Tropea says. “It was second tier to the Ontario Jockey Club circuit at the time — a very clear second — and they raced for good money. I enjoyed Windsor and I enjoyed the climate. I think the thing that I enjoyed most was the international aspect. We stabled in Windsor and raced in Ohio and Michigan, and the Ohio and Michigan people came to Windsor. It was kind of open competition, bring on all comers and let’s see who has the best horse, whereas a lot of racetracks have the same eight or nine that lined up on the gate every week. It was a very prestigious place to be. I love the city and I love the people down there. I try to get down there as often as I can.”
J. Paul Reddam, who was born and raised in Windsor and developed an interest in horse racing that would eventually lead to him winning the 2012 Kentucky Derby with I’ll Have Another, has bittersweet thoughts about the track. He won the Derby, the greatest thoroughbred race in North America, the day after Windsor’s management announced plans to shut down the track. It was as if the gods of horse racing had ripped out the hearts of Windsor horse racing fans and then turned around 24 hours later and weaved a story to make them feel a little bit better.
Reddam recalls that the first bet he ever made was at Windsor in the 1970s on a horse called Purple Raider. He bet $10 to win on the horse, who was groomed by a friend. The horse lost and it “mortified” Reddam, although he can now laugh about the experience.
“I remember Bill Gale in the 70s just dominating the track,” Reddam says of his memories. “It was a great time. Probably at that time I took it somewhat for granted. It was just very exciting to me.”
His favourite local memory is of a horse he owned at Windsor Raceway called Scotch Cloud, which he had purchased in California after moving there in 1979 and brought back to race in his home town. Scotch Cloud won a cheap claiming race at Windsor and paid $97. The horse was driven by Randy Fulmer, with whom Reddam has had a long association, and both of them cashed on the win.
Windsor fell on some hard times during the recession in the late 80s, and in 1989 southwestern Ontario businessman/entrepreneur Tom Joy bought the track from Montreal industrialist J-Louis Levesque, one of the prominent breeder/owners in the thoroughbred game and operator of Blue Bonnets Raceway. Adler had been among a separate group attempting to buy the track from Levesque’s son, Pierre. J-Louis brought thoroughbred racing to Windsor one year, but it lasted all of six weeks and didn’t gain any traction.
Joy, a fellow thoroughbred owner, did his best to inject vitality, life and resources into the ailing track. He hired John Ferguson, a retired National Hockey League enforcer known for his belligerence and his love of standardbred racing, as his general manager. He also aligned himself with some political allies, including the former Windsor mayor John Millson, whom he hired as president in 1992. While Joy pumped millions into the track in hopes of creating new energy, the track lost its popularity when Casino Windsor opened in 1994 and promptly siphoned away gambling dollars. Joy did his best to combat the competition through innovative strategies that included simulcast wagering, which allowed the track to open every day except Christmas from noon to midnight and gave patrons betting action on races from 10 separate tracks. Then the Ontario government introduced the slots-at-racetracks programs.It began with Windsor in January 1999 and provided an instant panacea. But the good times didn’t last. The falling Canadian dollar and dwindling economy in Windsor and Detroit further eroded the racetrack’s business. Blue-collar types could no longer afford to bet on the races. Moreover, the 9-11 attacks made it difficult for Americans to cross the border, which significantly impacted tracks such as Windsor and Fort Erie that relied on American patrons. The track’s popularity dropped, but it remained a fabric of the city because of a core audience, and there is a belief that Windsor could keep going, albeit differently from its current operation.
“I don’t think they were in any dire straits,” Tropea says. “They were only racing 80-85 days a year, which I think the racetrack could afford to do and the horsemen were racing for decent purse money. I think everybody was fine the way they were going along... certainly much better than they will be August 31st.”
“I don’t know what this is,” says McIntosh of the track’s decision to shut down as of August 31. “I don’t know if it’s political posturing or if it’s a tactical move on their part to get more money out of the government. I really don’t know. Everybody is a little baffled by it, but it’s created a lot of panic, that’s for sure.”
“It was sad to see the deterioration of the place the last number of times I was there,” Campbell adds. “When you think back at what it was at one time, you just kind of cringe.”
Reddam, like so many others who were touched by the history of Windsor Raceway and their own experiences, are saddened by what has transformed a place full of life into something on death row.
“I used to go to Windsor Raceway all the time when I lived in Windsor,” he says. “I really liked Sunday nights there and Saturday afternoons. It was a thriving place and it’s really a shame to see that it’s kind of gone down the tubes and it just closed because (the track’s ownership) lost the slots.”
Perhaps that says it all.