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Darryl Kaplan's Blog


Canadian Harness Racing: The First Race

Published: July 1, 2017 5:43 pm ET

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Here I am, in a sewer beneath old Montreal. For real.

I began July 1st in search of the site of Canada's first horse races. And now, I find myself in the bowels of Montreal, looking for the site of the nation's earliest harness races.

In order for any of this to make sense, I'll need to take you back almost 200 years.

On February 5, 1835, an article in Montreal’s La Minerve newspaper, stated:

“Several gentlemen having associated to collect a small sum of money for the purpose of arranging a meeting of all TROTTING HORSES of the Town as well as of the Country, as well as to offer the Habitants such incentives as will encourage them to breed horses of that kind which are considered to be of the greatest use and value, the following PURSES are to be put up for Competition at the TROTTING RACES ON ICE to be held on the 10th of FEBRUARY instant."

The three contests were divided up with one race for Canadian-bred trotters, one for open trotters and another for open pacers. The races, all contested over double heats, went for purses between $20 and $30.

The site of these winter races was the St. Pierre River in Montreal. Now, the problem with the St. Pierre River was that in addition to racing horses over it, citizens liberally discarded their trash in it as well.

With the river becoming increasingly polluted, by the mid 1800s, the St. Pierre was buried underneath the city as a sewer. The efforts to prevent disease from spreading in the city would eventually lead to a halt of racing on the river.

Trotting took place on the ice across Quebec during the 1800s, often with top owners offering large purses to all trotting horse owners in Lower Canada willing to put up their own money.

With the largely unregulated events came big crowds, unregulated betting, and lots of problems. Riots, fights and “illegal and immoral” activities were increasingly commonplace at race meets.

Soon regulation was replacing impromptu race meets, and organization was replacing chaos.

Today the sewer I am in is a protected archeological site, beneath Montreal's Pointe-a-Calliere Museum, located near the former joining point of the Saint Lawrence and St. Pierre rivers.

While there is seemingly no mention of ice racing at the historical museum, it's not difficult to imagine the horsepeople and horses who raced here several generations ago.

As I leave the museum, my walk through a cobblestone street reveals a horse and carriage slowly trotting by. I am left with trotting sounds indelibly associated with my trip underground.

And so I can move on, another brief chapter written in my trip to the past.

To read TROT editor Darryl Kaplan's previous blog entries on his "On The Road: Horse Racing 250" journey, click on the following links:

Part 3: Good Morning From Blue Bonnets

Part 2: June 30, 2017: Farewell: Signs From Hervé

Part 1: June 30, 2017: What are the chances?

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