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SC Rewind: Windsor Comes, Goes

Published: October 17, 2015 10:22 am ET

Last Comment: October 19, 2015 8:14 am ET | 4 Comment(s) | Jump to Comments

In this week's Rewind Robert Smith takes a long and somewhat nostalgic view of the once-famous and now-defunct Windsor Raceway.

His reminiscence is coincidental with the 50th anniversary of the border oval's much heralded opening on October 21, 1965. A recap of the opening week's happenings along with a number of old photographs make up a part of this Rewind.

Fifty years ago this coming week when Windsor Raceway first opened its doors, a new era of Canadian harness racing was born. The plant, located at the far west end of the city in a rather historic area known as Ojibway, was a work of mastery, totally designed to meet the needs and fancies of a new breed of harness racing fan. It was perhaps a fulfillment of the passage 'build it and they will come'. Its design and overall plan was a leap of faith and for many years it worked marvelously.

Previous to this time, winter racing was a rigorous and often treacherous form of the sport that was so unpredictable and sometimes unsafe that it could never be fully implemented. Accounts of old time racing at Toronto's Dufferin Park showed 'snail-like' race times and drivers bundled up like Eskimos! The new Windsor track took virtually everything into account to battle both Mother Nature and Old Man Winter. First and foremost was an all-weather Tartan track designed by the 3M Company and pioneered by Delvin Miller at his track in Pennsylvania. The stables and paddock were heated, they had hot water wash stalls and even telephones linked them to the Race Secretary's office. Top that off with a state of the art grandstand, heated and totally enclosed with a graduated view of the racing oval that one could only dream of prior to this.

This 1970 photo shows some of the early year participants at Windsor. From left: Wm. Rowe V.P., Joe DeFrank Race Sec'y., hometown product Greg Wright and Gerry Bookmyer of Sycamore, Ohio, both leading drivers in the earlier years.

This apparently was a time to build new racetracks. In 1962 Rideau Carleton opened; the following year Mohawk welcomed its first patrons. In 1964, Garden City followed suit. Now in 1965 it was Windsor's turn to join in the parade, but theirs was a bit different in that it was the first track designed specifically for inclement weather racing. Much of the technical design with the horsemen in mind was the input of Wm. Rowe and his father the Hon. Earl Rowe. Bill once stated "this track will finally recognize the horsemen; I am tired of people having to wash their faces in a horse pail when the day's races are finished."

Many years ago I had the pleasure of a lengthy visit with the late William Rowe, one of the main architects of the Windsor operation. Twenty years after its building and successful opening he was still in awe of what had been created even though he was no longer personally involved. During his reign, the Raceway saw unprecedented growth, prosperity and even adversity. On March 23, 1975 a devastating fire in the Clubhouse of unknown origin caused extensive damage resulting in lost revenue estimated in excess of $2 million. It wiped out the final 14 days of racing.

As a matter of record, the Raceway went uninterrupted for a phenomenal 1,470 programs before the first night of racing was canceled due to weather. On December 1, 1974 it took a 19-inch snowfall to finally put an end to the streak. In the first 20 years of operation only about six programs were ever canceled.

What about the all-weather track? Patrons were introduced to the 'feel' of the track upon entering the grandstand as a strip of the actual material was installed across the ground level. Initially the synthetic track was well received but in time it became less desirable and was eventually covered with stone dust in 1978. A couple of years later in 1980 it was removed and replaced by a traditional track. Many horsemen believed that the synthetic surface contributed to lameness as it was too rigid with no 'give' for the horse's natural gait. It was undeniably great for a winter racing strip and allowed for predictability since it was not affected by the elements.

Starter Tom McDonnell in the starting gate lining up the first race ever at Windsor Raceway. Although not identified, the driver of the eight horse looks a lot like Keith Waples (Windsor Star)

On opening night (which was a Thursday), a throng of 5,136 patrons filled the new grandstand and watched nine thrilling races, all but one carded for pacers. Although the actual opening night ceremonies were not held until the following evening, a few 'kinks' delayed the first post time by 14 minutes. With a drizzle outside and a relatively warm 62 degree temperature, they wagered $194,204. The honour of winning the first race went to a horse named Castle Direct who paced home in 2:10. In the bike was Ontario native "Red Fred" Roloson from Burgessville, who started his career at Canadian tracks and later relocated to Michigan.

A view of the Windsor betting area on opening night in 1965 as lucky patrons wait to cash their winning tickets (Windsor Star)


Left: An early Windsor program front page portrays what winter harness racing was all about. Right: Many fans in attendance were new to harness racing as a Windsor track had not operated since the 1930's. These two unidentified fans eagerly await the outcome of a race on opening night. (Windsor Star)

On the third night of operation the traditional Saturday night features began. In the Jr. Invitation Trot for a purse of $3,500, the winner was Ardee piloted by 59-year-old Harold Wellwood for The White Stables of St. Marys, Ont. The Invitational Pace went to a perennial favourite here as Philip Brian was home first for owner Gerald Mijal of Westland, Mich. and driver Tom Merriman -- the eventual leading dash winning driver -- in 2:04.2. Nearly three years later in October of 1968, this same Philip Brian became the first horse to record a sub-2:00 mile at the Windsor oval. The show was on!

In fairly rapid fashion Windsor grew in popularity. In March of 1966 their signature race 'The Provincial Cup' was established and carried a large purse of $15,000. Dancing David and a relatively obscure driver Charlie Goins won the inaugural before a standing room only crowd (myself among them). By this time, the stands were filled on most race nights, long lines of cars filed in and paid for admission and parking. Special box seats with a glass front view were rented out annually. Ushers presided over these reserved seats and if they knew the coveted front row boxes were not occupied that night by the renter, they often 'sublet' them for a folded up 'fin' judiciously palmed to them out of sight. Particularly on weekend nights if you wanted a seat, you better arrive early. By night's end, a thick fog usually prevailed in the main grandstand as "No smoking" regulations were well off in the future. Early in the track's history matinée racing became popular with day-night doubleheaders in effect.

Windsor became the training grounds for a whole new generation of drivers and trainers. Fathers were followed by their sons and the list of those who 'apprenticed' at the Border oval soon became a long one. Locally born and raised Greg Wright, Shelly Goudreau, Brian Webster, Western-born Ray Remmen, John and Jim Campbell, Ronnie Waples, Doug and Bob McIntosh, Ken and cousin Andy Hardy, Rod, Jerry and Dennis Duford, Ted McFadden, Randy and Terry Kerr, Bill Gale, Lew Clark, Danny Johnson, Walter Srigley and Randy Winger (who died so tragically at a young age). The list could go on forever.

The Sad Ending

Back in April of this year I made one last visit to Windsor Raceway. Unlike the old days, there were no tolls to pay or any difficulty in finding a parking space. It was an eerie experience and one I will not likely ever forget. I read in the Windsor Star that the final demolition was soon to begin. While I had known for many years, as did anyone even remotely connected with the track that its days were numbered, I could never bring myself to stop. On this day I brought my camera.

As I approached the boarded-up grandstand and weed-infested parking lots, I realized that this was like visiting a dying friend; akin to someone who had been told they would never recover and perhaps had just a short time left. I had no problem with clearing security as there was not a soul within miles. As I walked closer to the track my mind was somehow transferred back in time. I recalled the long lines of cars, the huge crowds and the sheer excitement that came with every visit. For a brief moment I remembered how the sport once was.

Now the place was in utter shambles. The once state-of-the-art toteboard was barely visible, long covered by weathered chipboard. Huge cracks in the concrete apron in front of the stand made it barely recognizable from the glory days when regardless of the weather, eager fans jockeyed for a good vantage point at the end of a race. I glanced up at the announcer's booth and recalled the voices of Jack Riggs, Norm Lampkin and of course Marty Adler. It all made me feel so sad, but at the same time I realized that in time all things change.

Surely many in the reading audience have "Windsor Memories."

October 19, 2015 - 8:14 amWe made the trip from Mohawk

Will Boggs SAID...

We made the trip from Mohawk to Windsor on a few dark nights. Great action and excitement at Windsor...loved the vibe!

October 18, 2015 - 9:07 amAn unexpected payoff !! Way

An unexpected payoff !! Way back in the 1930's my father bought and sold heavy horses as part of his livelihood .He dealt mainly with farmers and also dairies and bakeries who needed horses for their delivery wagons . One deal around 1935 with a nearby farmer was closed with $35.00 owing to my father . Balance Due "Once I get it" were the terms as in those days business was done mainly on a handshake . Fast forward 30 years to the opening of Windsor Raceway in 1965 . Glen Ferris the farmer spotted my Dad ,walked up to him and said "Carl here is the $35.00 I owe you !! ....".NO apologies,excuses nor interest offered !! Maybe being at the racetrack brings out our best side !!

October 17, 2015 - 1:52 pmGreat job Robert. Great

Great job Robert. Great memories brought back from reading your article. I spent a lot of time at Windsor Raceway as a guest of Mr Rowe.
Also trained to be a race secretary under Joe DeFrank in 1972 for that job at Barrie Raceway when we opened in December of 1973.
Just shows you that nothing stays the same in our lives. Constant changes in all walks of life.
Good article. Marv

October 17, 2015 - 11:44 amRobert, a wonderful obit. A

ron francis SAID...

Robert, a wonderful obit. A drive was as close as I ever got. Hoping there are no other such "obits" anytime soon.

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