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SC Rewind: Canada's First Gate, Part 2

mcdonell-gate.jpg

Published: February 12, 2011 12:37 pm ET

Last Comment: February 13, 2011 8:15 am ET | 2 Comment(s) | Jump to Comments

In this week's Rewind Robert Smith talks more about the first starting gate to appear in Canada and takes a further look at its creator and operator Thomas A. McDonnell. This is the second of a two-part story.

With the successful debut of the new McDonnell starting gate now in the record books, it was time to move on with the novel idea that had everyone in the world of harness racing speaking in glowing terms. From the May 24, 1947 season opener at Sarnia, the gate's next appearance was at one of the Province's most popular and successful race meetings of the season. It was on to Strathroy and the First of July Picnic, as it was called. The race day's organizer, Harold Currie had booked the new gate well in advance. Never one to shy away from a challenge or a change, Mr. Currie was undoubtedly happy to be part of this new innovation. This was a busy day that saw no less than 15 heats started "the new way".

As soon as the gate arrived at the Strathroy Fairgrounds it drew a proverbial "swarm" of onlookers. People looked at, under it, around it and in short went over it with "a fine toothed comb". Tom McDonnell had applied for a patent but it had not been issued in time for its first appearance, but he decided to go ahead without it. Within a very short period of time other gates began to appear. Next in line was Art Whitesell who unveiled his at Grand Valley on Labour Day 1947; he at times has mistakenly been credited with being the first in Canada. Because of its basic design and generic structure, the patent was granted but Mr. McDonnell was never able to enforce it. From a somewhat philosophic viewpoint I think he was not disappointed. He soon had more engagements than he could handle and also began to make gates for others. He also had the continuing satisfaction of knowing that his impact on the sport would be enjoyed forever.

As a result of the Sarnia appearance the gate's first International appearance was soon made at the Croswell, Michigan Fair thanks to Alex Ham, a Michigander who had served as Sarnia's Presiding Judge. As the gate crossed the border at Port Huron, Customs officials were slow to clear the vehicle because they were unable to quite figure it out. Soon the gate became a necessity wherever races were held; the notion of ever going back to the old way was unthinkable. Bookings and more bookings became a way of life for Tom McDonnell and more often than not he was accompanied by his young son as they visited many small town racetracks. Their arrival often began by enjoying a lunch and a bit of tea packed by Mrs. McDonnell to sustain the travelers. Business soon warranted a vehicle dedicated just for starting; a throttle at the rear was the first improvement and the advent of the automatic transmission increased the efficiency immensely. Down the road came a steady stream of upgrades including an enclosure, contact with the judges’ stand and even a seat.

If anyone thinks that there were never any problems or challenges along the way, they are not aware of what transpired at the Owen Sound Fair in the fall of 1951. Shortly after arrival at Victoria Park, the McDonnell crew were informed that a problem existed that would upset the day's festivities. Legendary announcer Tory Gregg had taken ill and would not be in attendance. Pardon the pun, but a change in the "starting" lineup had to be made. Tom McDonnell would assume the announcer's role and veteran horseman Tom Ramage of Kincardine was recruited to serve as the starter. Driving the starting gate would be young Bill McDonnell just 15 at the time. All was well, or so everybody thought.

While Mr. Ramage may have been a seasoned horseman, the same may not have been true of his abilities as a fledgling starter. As he sent the field away, perhaps due to his inexperience and nervousness, he failed to release the throttle he had used to speed up the vehicle. The path the car followed after a race had started led down a hill toward the Arena. The young 15 year old at the wheel was getting a baptism under fire or maybe worse. Despite it being nearly 60 years ago Bill recently said "I was some scared." Thankfully he had the presence of mind to turn the ignition off and certain disaster was averted. That evening he suggested to his father that perhaps he would do the announcing the next day and Dad could return to his starter's role. Thus began the announcing career of Wm. McDonnell.

In 1974 Tom McDonnell decided to retire after over 30 years in his starter's perch, the last nine spent as Windsor's first and only starter. He had also helped to open Rideau Carleton and served at Connaught Park. Virtually wherever races had been held during that time, he had likely been the starter at least on one occasion. His travels had taken him as far West as Calgary, East to Sherbrooke, Quebec and as far North as Sudbury. He had trained several new starters including his brothers, his son Bill and nephews Terry and George. He had built and sold gates that appeared at many tracks including some in the U.S. In Eastern Ont., Harry Ingles operated a gate he purchased from Tom. He had also at times operated multiple units as their popularity increased. He never ceased to be a fan of the game. He knew the countless hours, months and sometimes years it could take to get a horse to the races, and he always hoped for a safe and fairly staged contest. He tried to send every field off with that in mind.

In 1981 Thomas McDonnell passed away, a few months short of his 75th birthday. He was truly one of Canadian harness racing's pioneers, a man whose vision carried the sport toward a new dimension. Today as people attend races the orderly starting of a race seldom draws anyone's attention; it has become a given. It was not always that way, and as we reflect to that time now nearly 65 years ago, we can think of and thank Thomas Albert McDonnell for his enduring contributions. They have become indelible.

February 13, 2011 - 8:15 amThank You Mr. MacDonald for

Thank You Mr. MacDonald for your input; do you have any more details ? . Many years ago I spoke with a veteran Ontario based horseman who spent some time stationed in the Maritimes while in the service during WW II .During leaves and off times, he travelled about the area to attend races and reported seeing a mobile starting gate being used .Just what it was like and how extensive was its use he did not detail but it certainly would have been prior to 1947 . Needless to say he left us many years ago so I cannot ask him now .He was a man of many stories ,some of which were probably true !!

February 12, 2011 - 4:49 pmwas there not a starting

was there not a starting gate on pei years before this


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