SC Rewind: A Memorable Event From 1961

SC Rewind: A Memorable Event from 1961
Published: December 9, 2023 11:11 am EST

In this week's Rewind Robert Smith recalls a special evening held over 60 years ago in 1961 at London's Western Fair Raceway.  This memorable event was held as a memorial race and was part of the happenings observing the first year for night time harness racing in Ontario.  

It has been over 62 years ago that the London Western Fair Raceway began to hold night racing. On the evening of May 17, 1961 when Adieu Herbert,  owned and driven by veteran Londoner Bill Herbert, crossed the finish line to win the evening's first race, it signaled the beginning of a new era. The long awaited night time racing had finally arrived in Ontario.  Other winning drivers that evening were Garfield Ritchie, Harvey Fleet, Hugh McLean, Ken Bogart and Almer Holmes.  

One of the highlights of London's first season of night racing took the form of a promotional evening on June 8, 1961, midway into the track's first month of operation.  A special $1,000 two heat three year old Invitational Pace was scheduled and was named in honour of the recently passed Ken MacDonald,  a former horseman and well known personality in the London area and also a brother to the noted Strathroy teamster Morris "Morrie" MacDonald.  Another brother, Chester MacDonald was also a familiar figure on the backstretch of numerous tracks where he operated a tack shop first started by their father Jack. 

Drivers in mud suits

A group of six well known horsemen who visited London's Western Fair Raceway as part of a promotional event on June 8, 1961.  From left are Joe Hodgins, Bud Gilmour, Johnny Chapman, Morris MacDonald, Clint Hodgins and Harold Wellwood.  (London Free Press Photo)

The focus of interest on the three -year old pace was not so much on the competing colts as it was on their drivers.  In an effort to provide racing fans with the tops in entertainment, London's General Manager Evan McGugan and his staff invited a number of very well known Canadian drivers who were all then racing at major U.S. tracks.  In a gesture of generosity, several drivers made the sacrifice of leaving their regular public stable duties to journey to their homeland to help launch London's entry into arclight racing. 

The invited celebrities were all well known to Canadian racing fans and fellow horsemen as without exception all of the drivers had begun their careers in South-western Ontario.  Most of them had probably driven at the London track in earlier years. The cast of visiting drivers included Johnny Chapman, Wm. "Buddy" Gilmour, Clint Hodgins, Morrie MacDonald, Joe Hodgins and Harold Wellwood.  Alix "Spider" Winger was also originally scheduled to drive but was unable to attend so Duncan Campbell ended up driving his own entrant Argyel Albert.  Rounding out the eight-horse field was the up-and-coming 19-year-old teamster Ronnie Feagan of Goderich, who seemed to fit right in. 

Racing that evening took place on  a track somewhat slowed by post time showers. However Bill Madill of Shelburne, Ont. managed the fastest heat of 2:10.2 with his own Edna's Counsel. The first heat of the three-year-old Invitation was won by Argyel Albert driven by Duncan Campbell who at the age of 61 was still a dominant force in the sport and the eventual leading driver at the first London meet. Dolly Dale B was second for Clint Hodgins and Superior Mc third steered by Johnny Chapman.  In the second heat Clint Hodgins reined Dolly Dale B to victory to nose out Morrie MacDonald and Twinkles Danny with Atomite and Harold Wellwood grabbing the show spot.  The 1-2 standing of Dolly Dale B gave owner Floyd Belore of nearby Salford a trip to the festive winner's circle where he was presented with a suitably inscribed cooler and a trophy as a memento of the win. 

In spite of the rather inclement weather that evening,  a record crowd of 5,788 people showed up to greet this new promotional idea. The wagering handle reached a record $82,718, tops for the meet to that point.  In a word, the evening was nothing short of sensational. The post parade for the special race included an introduction of each visiting driver by announcer Bill McDonnell and a brief summary of their lifetime accomplishments, particularly on the U.S. side of the border.  After driving the first heat with mud suits covering their driver's silks because of the sloppy track, Morrie MacDonald suggested that each driver remove his rain jacket for the second trip in order to give the crowd a more colourful view of the drivers.  The large crowd voiced their appreciation with a warm ovation during the second post parade.  (Note - The accompanying photographs illustrate this change of attire)

Ken MacDonald Memorial Pace 

Dolly Dale B

Dolly Dale B on the far left with owner Floyd Belore is joined by a host of well wishers after a win at London. Left to right: Harold Wellwood, Joe Hodgins, Morris MacDonald, Duncan Campbell, Johnny Chapman, Ron Feagan, Bud Gilmour and Clint Hodgins. The two gentlemen in the rear were believed to be WFR officials (Photo courtesy of Jack & Florence Campbell / R W Boll Photography)

Dolly Dale B

Dolly Dale B is shown with her owner and trainer Floyd Belore in the sulky.  This vintage photo was taken in 1960 when she was a two-year-old and registered a win at Old Woodbine Raceway in Toronto.  Her winning time of 2:09.2 was considered to be very good at this time. 

Upon conclusion of the second and final heat of the feature, all of the drivers walked from the paddock to the front of the grandstand for the cooler and trophy presentation.  Mrs. Jack MacDonald, mother of Ken MacDonald, the man for whom the race was named, was driven onto the track by the Whitesell starting gate.  She joined another son, Morrie in congratulating the winning owner Floyd Belore and Clint Hodgins the winning driver.  It was a fitting conclusion to a colourful and interesting evening, one which remained the talk of the Raceway for weeks following this event. 

Many years ago I had the pleasure of visiting with Floyd Belore who graciously shared his recollections from that evening as they still stood out in his memory.  "As horsemen, we were all eager to see night racing become a success at London, so I certainly didn't mind someone else driving my filly," he recalled. Belore also remembers that the Raceway put on a special party following the races and it was a great time to reminisce and meet old friends that the visiting drivers had not seen for a long time. 

The special race winner,  Dolly Dale B went on to a long and productive racing career for owner Belore.  As a three-year-old she won a total of 14 races that year, many at the London oval. The daughter of Joe Dale - Belva Hal ultimately reached the Preferred and Invitational ranks and raced for several years throughout Ontario and Michigan and also for a time under the care of Jack Mehelenbacher at Batavia Downs.  She obviously still occupies a treasured spot in Floyd's memories.  "Although she never raised a foal, we kept her as a pet until she was humanely euthanized at the age of 26." It is heartwarming to hear such stories. 

As we reflect on the Western Fair Raceway's now long history, the date of June 8, 1961 stands out as a special evening. The practice of drivers competing in challenge and promotional races is widely accepted today and is no longer a novelty as it was 62 years ago.  This event is believed to be the first of its kind in Canadian racing, and if not it was certainly among the pioneers. This evening laid the framework for one of the great promotional ideas in harness racing. 

Ken MacDonald, the driver in the above photo was remembered at London following his passing when a Memorial race was held in his honour in June 1961.  He is pictured here after a winning drive in 1955 with three-year-old Captain Wright.  Owner Richard Scott of Toronto is at the horse's head.  (London Free Press archives) 

Editor's note: In May 2011 I was privileged along with my wife to be a guest at London's 50th anniversary celebration. Quite by accident we were seated at the same table as members of the Belore family including Elsie (Mrs. Floyd Belore). Also at our table were Jack and Florence Campbell, thus two of the sport's oldest and longest serving families in Canadian harness racing were represented. It was a pleasure to spend such quality time with them, and an evening we shall never forget. 

Remembering An Event From 100 Years Ago 

Keith Waples

Yesterday, Friday, Dec. 8 was the 100th anniversary of this gentleman's birthday as he first saw the light of day in the tiny rural community of Tay, Ont. on Dec. 8, 1923.  Proud parents were Bertha and Jack Waples.  I was privileged 10 years ago when he turned 90 to write a short series on the Standardbred Canada website about his life and career in the world of harness racing.  He passed away a couple of years ago (May 7, 2021)  but he left us with a lot of happy memories. 

Quote For The Week: "Every day is a school day." - Louis, a co-worker of mine used to say this when something happened that we had not faced before and had to figure out a solution.  I still miss him. 

Who Is It?  

Who Is It photo question

Can you name these four fellows who were appearing as guest drivers at a U.S. track a number of years ago?  

Who Else Is It?  

Who Else Is It photo question

Can you identify this well-dressed gentleman?  He is no longer with us (2015) but I am sure he's remembered. 

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