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SC Rewind: The Queen Visits Stratford

Proximity-At-Stratford.jpg

Published: November 13, 2010 7:36 am ET

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In this week's Rewind Robert Smith recalls the very special visit of the sport's greatest female trotter to the Stratford Fairgrounds 60 years ago.

Early on the morning of August 7, 1950 things were quite busy in downtown Stratford, Ont., and it wasn't because people were lining up to see a Shakespearean play. This was the day that Proximity, the greatest distaff trotter the sport had ever seen was headed into town. Proximity was so renown that wherever she travelled her presence was referred to as "The Queen of Trotters". Although most spectators that day had only heard or perhaps read about her, a lot of people wanted to be there to be a part of history. She was a jewel for the ages.

Back in 1950 a good trotting or pacing horse was still quite a rarity; a great horse was almost unheard of and furthermore seldom seen. In the U.S. the sport had made great strides with the coming of night harness racing and the building of several new tracks during the decade of the 1940's. Canada still lagged behind but efforts were being made to boost the popularity of the harness sport. It still remained the task of the smaller racing towns and villages to carry the bulk of the load. Special one day meetings were still very popular across the country and the picture that accompanies today's story shows an overflowing grandstand and an infield filled with cars.

For several decades the track at Stratford had played a major role in putting on the very finest in racing and entertained some of the largest crowds each summer season. Top Free for Allers were always on the card and also the ever popular colt Futurities and Supertest races were often held here. As usual there was a promoter behind the scenes working tirelessly. In Stratford it was a man named David Pinkney. It should be pointed out that despite the similarity in name I believe he was not related to the Maritime horsemen sharing this surname. Mr. Pinkney had been a long time promoter, owner and even sometimes trainer along with being the proprietor of the Queen's Hotel, a popular lodging and dining establishment in Stratford. On race days at Stratford, a special room was set aside at the Queen's where horsemen were paid their purse money upon conclusion of the racing card.

Over the years he had maintained a long and abiding friendship with horseman Clint Hodgins, who by this time was among the leading trainer drivers in the U.S. Their close association went back many years to when Clint drove for the Pinkney stable at the small town Ontario tracks. Through their collaborative efforts this day was made possible as Clint had been associated with Proximity pretty much her entire career. To imagine putting together a race involving Proximity was not a possibility as she was so far superior to any rivals she might attract that a conventional race would probably be a total waste of time. Instead a special exhibition mile was the logical choice.

By this time Proximity was eight years old and had pretty much written her own page in the record books. Her mile record time of 1:59.2 placed her in "rarefied" territory, not to mention her records at several other distances. She had also banked an incredible $212,379 to this date for her owners Ralph and Gordon Verhurst, a father-son team who operated a vinegar factory in Victor, New York - a small town near Rochester in the Finger Lakes region. She had become so famous and popular in this community that on the days she raced most of the local stores closed and people headed to the races if they were nearby. To this day she remains a special hero in this area coincidentally located in Ontario County, N.Y.

The actual exhibition mile resulted in a new track record of 2:06.4 for the Stratford oval eclipsing the former standard of 2:09 set back in 1936 by 2-1/5 seconds. Proximity and Clint Hodgins pursued fairly leisurely opening fractions and arrived at the half mile station in 1:05. Time for the 3/4 pole was 1:36.4 and as a final "rush" for the fans Clint Hodgins stepped up the pace (actually the trot) for the final quarter to 30 seconds flat, thus achieving a 2:00 clip which most in attendance had never before witnessed. The second half was covered in 1:01.4!! The huge crowd was tremendously appreciative as the pair returned to the front of the stands. As an indication of the relative speed this mile time represented, the Three-Year-Old Supertest Trot contested that afternoon had a mile in 2:18 as its fastest heat. Admittedly in those days sophomore trotters were not too speedy.

One person on hand that day had previously seen Proximity and from pretty close range. Harold Wellwood was driving the just recently purchased Dream Girl W for Mrs. Wesley Litt of Stratford and the pair won both heats of the "Hotels Of Stratford Stake" that afternoon. He had on occasion driven Proximity, and one of her notable victories came at Northville Downs in Michigan winning the Governor's Cup with Harold driving.

Imagine how times change. One of the great spectacles in the sport's history up to this point in time that probably involved not one cent. No purse was paid out and not a single mutuel ticket was cashed. I would doubt very much that Clint Hodgins received any more than a meal or two at the Queen's Hotel and a big thank you for his efforts. Also for his part in the promotion Dave Pinkney undoubtedly was thrilled that so many people showed up and even more special were the ones who thanked him. This was typical of Clint Hodgins, a man who would never forget from whence he came and who was more than willing to perform a philanthropic deed. Clint was a man of very firm character and one, to borrow a movie line "you did not mess with", but beneath his sometimes brusque exterior was a man of tremendous kindness and caring. His visit that afternoon showed fans a glimpse of what was down the road as the sport would eventually reach major league status in Canada.

This piece of history is not recorded in the Annual Year Book considered the official register since 1885, but nevertheless it ranks as a very important day in the sport's formative years.


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