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SC Rewind: Small-Town Racing

Published: January 26, 2019 10:04 am ET

Last Comment: January 30, 2019 9:19 am ET | 13 Comment(s) | Jump to Comments

In this week's 'Rewind' Robert Smith takes readers on a journey back in time to a day when Canadian harness racing was held mainly at small-town venues. He has chosen the quaint little Southwestern Ontario town of Tillsonburg located in Oxford County as the focus of his story. It is mainly pictorial in nature and the numerous old photos aid in telling the story of a bygone era.

Tillsonburg: Small-Town Racing At Its Finest

A look at downtown Tillsonburg at the corner of Broadway and Oxford Streets as it appeared around 1955. This picture was provided by Mr. Matt Scholtz, a local historian and photo archivist. My thanks to him for his generosity in sharing his gems. Old pictures are one of our greatest tools in preserving history.

For many years, in fact the better part of two centuries, Canadian harness racing as a sport relied almost solely on small-town spots to showcase its annual events. Each individual town's turf clubs did the organizing and provided the facilities and promotion. While every spot was a little different than the next, they all played an important role with a certain amount of oversight from the sport's ruling body such as the C.T.A. from about 1940 on. Their rules and regulations applied at each meeting.

Annual races days were "big deals" in those days. Every small town across the land that staged racing wanted their show to be among the best. What they hoped for most was good weather and the best horses available in their area. Many places raced just once or twice a year so there was not a lot of second chances. While actual racing was a once or twice a year happening, these tracks were always busy places. They were populated by many people who trained their hopefuls over the local ovals.

I have assembled an abbreviated list of racing people who were associated with Tillsonburg and the surrounding area. I have arranged them in alphabetical order. This is not intended to be all inclusive, just a sampling as I remember them. If anyone in the reading audience recalls a name that I have omitted please feel free to send it along; it will be most welcome.

John Anscombe, Ed and Doug Arthur, Art Balcombe, Andy Bell, George Bennett & family, Don Crossett, J. Harry Dunlop, Belore families (too numerous to list individually), Jack Climie, J. Harry Dunlop, Larry Fitzsimmons, Bill Furlong, Burton Harris, Ed Harris, Don Lindsay, Cam McKnight, Dr. McKibbin, Wilson Mitchell, Roger Nagle, Moulton family, Len Owen, Rollason families, Percy Sharpe (Cart manufacturer), Alf Shrubb, Carl Siple family, Allan Tait, Tolhurst family, Art Whitesell. Also worth noting is the fact that longtime horseman and later judge Bill Hicks was born in Tillsonburg and for several years lived at Mount Elgin, just a few miles north of the town. Today a golf course occupies their former dairy farm.

Also of note is the fact that for many years the famous Canadian Sportsman newspaper was published in Tillsonburg. While its long time editor "Chappy" Chapman was a native of Toronto, he made his home here for quite a number of years. For many years beginning in the 1940's some of the annual Supertest races were held here.

Shown below are an array of old photos, mainly from my own collection. Many were taken by photographers from The London Free Press present on race days to cover the action. As many of the photos show, some pretty large crowds were often on hand to take in the races.

A view of the 1951 crowd shows a beautiful day and a grandstand filled with harness racing fans at Tillsonburg. One can't help but wonder where that young fellow at the bottom was headed. (D.B. Weldon Library, LFP Collection)

Art Whitesell of Tillsonburg leads a field toward the starting line using one of his very early starting gates. A portion of the bleachers and a couple of the backstretch stables are visible in the background. Art was a local Chrysler dealer so always used vehicles from his lot that were modified by his mechanics.

Above is a view of a very full grandstand on race day at Tillsonburg during a race day held in the early 1950's. A closer look shows that harness racing attracted some pretty young fans back then.

On race day in 1947 the best seat in the house may not have been a seat but a good spot standing near the wire. On the outside Lorne Lee and driver Alf Moore get the nod over Dillon Flicka along the rail with Ed Arthur in the sulky. (D.B. Weldon Library, LFP Collection)

This 1953 photo shows legendary starter Art Whitesell lining up a field with precision during that year's festivities. A standing room only crowd can be seen in the background.

An ad for the 1942 race day as displayed on the pages of The Canadian Sportsman which was published in Tillsonburg for many years. Advertised as "One Of The Best Half Mile Tracks In Ontario."

By 1970 races were less popular than during the earlier years but were still a part of the annual fair. By this time lights had been installed and races were then held during the evening hours. The front cover of that year's program is shown above. Note: A local lad, Larry Fitzsimmons was an entrant in the sixth race driving his own Alex Hoot. He finished third in that event and with a purse of $125.00 his earnings probably amounted to around $15.00

Today I am told that the track and horse facilities have all disappeared much like most other localities across the land. Old pictures and written accounts remain to remind us of a bygone era when small town racing was a major happening.

Who Is It?

Can you identify these two fellows pictured between races at the Tillsonburg track many years ago? (D.B. Weldon Library, LFP Collection)

Bonus Photo

Who is this gentleman? He was once a familiar figure at small town race meetings in Ontario. Stay tuned for the answers during the coming week.

January 30, 2019 - 9:19 amThis week's photos featured

This week's photos featured the great father-son combination of Wm. and son Jack Herbert of London taken during race day in 1948 at Tillsonburg. They were shown with a pair of the best colts to appear in Ontario racing up to that time. On the left was the roan Jay Herbert, with Oro G Herbert on the right.
The gentleman in bonus photo was Roger Nagle, a long-time resident of the Tillsonburg area who served in numerous capacities including many years with the Whitesell and later Belore starting gates.
Thanks so much.

January 28, 2019 - 4:13 pmTracks with mutuel machines

Leon Siple SAID...

Tracks with mutuel machines and tote boards seemed pretty dull after seeing Chappy take bets and work the chalk in front of those Tobbaco Town crowds. There were so many businessmen in Tillsonburg willing to try the racing game that one year in the sixties Eddie Arthur found himself with over twelve green owners on one colt.

January 27, 2019 - 2:29 pmThanks to Gary Foerster for

Thanks to Gary Foerster for his thoughtful comment which added a slightly newer dimension to the story. The mention of New Departure and other horses owned by Lyle Grant of Straffordville and trained and driven by Fred List further lengthens the list of local individuals involved​. Lyle Grant passed away in 2008 at the age of nearly 94 shortly after he and his wife Madge had celebrated their 70th anniversary. Fred's father Harry List would have certainly been a competitor at Tillsonburg in days of yore. Anyone who had a horse that was hard to handle hired Harry to drive.

January 27, 2019 - 8:19 amRoger Nagle.

Roger Nagle.

January 26, 2019 - 11:36 pmBonus photo for sure is Roger

Craig Barss SAID...

Bonus photo for sure is Roger Nagle - starter for many years on the B-tracks.

January 26, 2019 - 5:22 pmAs the photos show,

As the photos show, Tillsonburg was a hotbed of racing in the '40's and '50's. In the early '80's, the spirt of those times were relived on a beautiful sunny afternoon when a group of local horsemen put on quite a show. With no less a talent than Marty Adler calling the action, the highlight of the day was local owner Lyle Grant's top pacer New Depature winning for driver Fred List. There were more than a few misty eyes in the large crowd who remembered the "glory days" at the Tillsonburg oval.
As always, a great job Robert.

January 26, 2019 - 2:47 pmTo stump Gord Brown is quite

To stump Gord Brown is quite an accomplishment. To have him admit it is even a greater feat!

January 26, 2019 - 12:58 pmAfter a research on internet,

After a research on internet, I found the name of the gentelman for the bonus photo. I will just tell is initials (R.N.) to keep the mystery. But I really did know Mr Bill and Jack Herbert.

January 26, 2019 - 12:38 pmI would William and Jack

I would William and Jack Herbert.

No answer for the bonus photo.

January 26, 2019 - 12:37 pmTop picture most certainly

Bob Belore SAID...

Top picture most certainly is, Bill and young Jack Herbert.

The bottom bonus picture is the renowned Roger Nagle at the Simcoe Fair.

January 26, 2019 - 11:27 amA couple of names missing

A couple of names missing from Robert's list would be Jack Warner and Jim Hewitt.

January 26, 2019 - 11:10 amI think the Bonus photo is

Tom Foley SAID...

I think the Bonus photo is Toby Harris.

January 26, 2019 - 10:37 amI'm stumped Robert. Way

Gord Brown SAID...

I'm stumped Robert. Way before my time. Maybe Bill and Jack Herbert. Bonus Alan Dickenson? Another great read!

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