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SC Rewind: Gendron Wins A Car

Published: February 28, 2016 8:52 am ET

Last Comment: March 5, 2016 3:46 pm ET | 5 Comment(s) | Jump to Comments

In this week's 'Rewind,' Robert Smith takes readers back to an event from 1972 held at the then fairly new Windsor Raceway. On this day, eight of the top drivers in the sport engaged in a friendly competition called 'The Challenge of Champions' and one lucky fellow 'drove away' in a brand new car.

When Windsor Raceway opened its doors back in 1965, their promotional staff soon began to present a number of ingenious and interesting events centered around a day of racing. The fans loved the idea and turned out in droves to join in the festive activities. Some events even became annual affairs.

Front row (L-R) Lew Williams, Gilles Gendron (winner), Herve Filion. Back Row (L-R) ​Del Insko, Carmine Abbatiello, Joe Marsh Jr., Ron Feagan, Greg Wright [Windsor Star]

On the afternoon of Sunday, December 10, 1972 Windsor Raceway invited eight of the Continent's best drivers to compete in the day's ten-race card. The event was called "The Challenge of Champions". Several of these well-known sulky pilots flew in for the day while a couple drove and two were resident drivers at the Windsor oval. The star studded cast (in alphabetical order) included Carmine Abbatiello, Ron Feagan, Herve Filion, Gilles Gendron, Del Insko, Joe Marsh Jr., Lew Williams and Greg Wright. It was a nice mix of talent with four Canadian-born drivers and a like number of U.S. teamsters.

The afternoon did not get off to a particularly quick start as the normal post time of 1:30 for daytime racing had to be delayed. Herve Filion, flying in from New York, notified officials that his plane had encountered high winds causing an unavoidable delay. After a wait of a half hour, the standing room only crowd heaved a collective sigh of relief as the horses finally paraded for the opener. While many fans were familiar with a number of the visiting horsemen, apparently quite a few people were wondering just who is Gilles Gendron? This was his first trip to Windsor, plus he did not have too much experience driving on other Ontario tracks. While he was a household name in Montreal, he quite frankly was not all that well known least not yet.

Following the slightly later than expected start time, the proceedings got underway to the delight of the 8,602 fans on hand. Following is a race by race synopsis of the day's ten thrilling contests. Points were doled out exactly in the same ratio as the purse payouts with 50 to the winner, 25 for second followed by 12, eight and five for a fifth place finish.

Race 1 - The winning horse was Amri piloted by Carmine Abbatiello for his lone win of the card.

Race 2 - The winner of the second was the sometimes cantankerous pacer named Delbert, driven by Lew Williams and trained by Larry Fitzsimmons for Toronto owner Lou Evans. A 1-6 Daily Double thrilled only a few in the crowd as the payout was a whopping $205.60.

Race 3 - Gilles Gendron scored the first of his three victories with Black Arrow A. Quite a few in the crowd who had winning tickets were well rewarded as the tote board lit up with a payoff of $29.50 for a two-dollar investment. After finishing eighth in the opener and sixth in the second, this was quite a boost for Gendron.

Race 4 - Brady Adios was home first for the late-arriving Filion. This was the lone first place finish for Herve, who had already scored 575 wins on the season.

Race 5 - Pleasant Cash provided Gendron his second winning trip. This horse was owned by Donald Morritt of Thorndale and trained by Gerald Aiken of Glanworth.

Race 6 - Joe Marsh Jr., a native of Findlay, Ohio, notched his first of two behind Piffle, owned by Jack and Jean Fenton of Chesley, Ont.

Race 7 - Trotter Arvilla Mac, owned by Alex Balazisty of Muirkirk along with Graham Chambers and Gordon Bearley of Bothwell, was a longshot winner for Gendron, making his hat trick which propelled him to victory at the end of the afternoon. This horse was trained by Jerry Moffatt of London.

Race 8 - Driver Ron Feagan finally hit the charmed circle behind Prides Knight for his only win of the afternoon.

Race 9 - Joe Marsh won his second of the day behind Muddy Dares in the fastest mile recorded in 2:07.3. This placed him in contention to either win or at least tie for the overall lead and the keys to the car. As it turned out the second place finish by Gendron in this event driving Irish Champ provided him with enough points to win the new car.

Race 10 - As the afternoon came to a close, Lew Williams an Ohio driver currently competing at Windsor steered Hewgalo to a winning score for his second trip to the magic circle. Both contending drivers were sitting behind longshots, and even though Marsh gained a fourth place finish in the finale it was not enough.

Aime Des Rosiers, chairman of the board of Windsor Raceway, congratulates Challenge of Champions winner Gilles Gendron after he received the keys to a 1973 Chrysler Imperial. From left is Ron Todgham, Pres., Chrysler Canada; Joe DeFrank, Race Sec. (partially obscured); Wm. Rowe, Raceway Pres.; and driver Lew Williams behind Gendron.

​By the conclusion of the day's racing, virtually everyone in the crowd knew the 27-year-old horseman named Gilles Gendron quite a bit better. He led all drivers with a point total of 183. Following in order were Joe Marsh (178), Lew Williams (173), Ronnie Feagan (130), Greg Wright (116), Herve Filion (101), Carmine Abbatiello (90) and Del Insko at a meagre 29. Hometown 'boy' Greg Wright amassed an amazing 116 points without the benefit of a winning drive, but did get points in seven races. As he slipped off the bike following the tenth he said "It didn't seem like we raced 10 times, I really enjoyed it. Gilles deserved to win the car, he did a great job with the luck of the draw he got today."

At this time Gendron was just 27 years of age and had been driving for just seven years. He started his career working with both the Charlie Poulin and Marcel Dostie outfits and was in his third season of running his own stable. His aim was to head for the New York circuit if he could get enough good stock. Gendron got all three of his wins in come from behind fashion which he stated as being his favourite style.

Once the races were finished Herve wasted little time in providing a few of his thoughts as he assessed the day in his typical fashion. " A competition like this is great for the sport and that's why we're here. It's not a true reflection of driving ability, it's more about the luck of the horses you draw. It's a great idea to get these boys together and I'll be back next year!" Filion added while laughing "I really tried; I got out in front in three races and finished last each time."

Based on his point total Gendron was handed the keys to a brand new 1973 Chrysler Imperial valued at $10,500. Doing the honours was Chrysler Canada President Ron Todgham, a man quite conversant with the sport of harness racing. Over the years in addition to at one time running an automobile dealership and later serving in several executive positions with Chrysler, he had owned and raced a number of horses. By the way, the handing of keys was just a symbolic gesture as arrangements were being made with a Chrysler dealer in Montreal to supply an identical vehicle to Mr. Gendron. All of the drivers were presented with a very nice stopwatch as a show of appreciation by Windsor management.

It was later revealed that it could have cost the Raceway much more to put this event on had there been a tie between Gendron and his closest challenger Joe Marsh Jr. Raceway President Wm. Rowe said "I guess we would have no alternative but to get a car for each of them." The competition was so close that as late as the seventh race every driver except Insko who seemingly could do nothing right still had a shot.

Gilles was pretty happy man at the end of the day and came with a couple pretty good quotes. He said "I've been driving a 1971 Firebird; but now I'll drive a nice new Chrysler Imperial." At a reception following the races he said "I really like it here; anytime I go where I can win a car like this, I like it!"

Events such as these were great days. They provided an opportunity for true racing fans to see horsemen from other areas of the country. I am sure it was also a nice time for the competing drivers, especially with the possibility of driving home in a brand new set of wheels.

March 5, 2016 - 3:46 pmMore great stuff

More great stuff Robert.
Being a horse racing fanatic living in London On. in those days I was in one of many, many car loads to go east or west on the 401 to see major league racing and see how it was done.
For some reason we were late and to our delight we caught the whole program. I can remember having to park in the full auxillary lot on the other side of Hwy 18 and running to the grandstand. Forget about finding anyone you were looking for.
Most of my crowd were there to cheer for Ronnie. But after spending the summer at Blue Bonnets I was well aware of Gilles' talent. I was buyin on the trip home.
You stir great memories.

February 29, 2016 - 7:23 amGilles Gendron was one of the

murray brown SAID...

Gilles Gendron was one of the great driving talents I've ever known. He was one of the many who never really reached his true potential. Even though his numbers are impressive, in my opinion they could have been so much better.
Back in the early 60s, when I was working for the Miron Brothers stable, I can recall Marcel Dostie telling me about Gilles, who was his best groom. "This kid will be a great driver someday. He has the best set of hands that I've never seen on a young kid". To my knowledge, at the time Gilles had never even driven in a single race.

February 28, 2016 - 4:28 pmGreat Article, Robert. I also

Great Article, Robert.
I also remember those days well. As a youngster, Earl Rowe Jr. and I would drive to Windsor to spend the weekend with his father. Bill Rowe was a wonderful man and a great motivator of staff. They all wanted to do a good job for Bill and he was very well respected. His employees loved him. Joe DeFrank and Jim Learmouth ran a great Race Office. I spent many days working with Joe and Jim learning the business.
I had the pleasure to meet Mr. Ron Todgham the Pres of Chrysler. Those were the good old days.
Windsor Raceway holds fond memories for me.
Thanks Robert for bringing back some of those memories with your article on Gilles Gendron winning a car.
Keep up the good work.

February 28, 2016 - 11:27 amOh my God Robert! Not sure

Oh my God Robert! Not sure whether to laugh or cry! The group photo......took me right back to the years....I was a kid, driving for my license at The Meadowlands...... surrounded by all that talent on a daily basis.
As far as I'm concerned, Lew Williams was the original man to bring about that .....lay back in the bike style of driving.....that prevails race bikes that were nowhere near fashioned for that. The things I instantly recalled seeing that photo.....Wow, ....I'm old....

sincerely and thank you again for the great memories

February 28, 2016 - 9:56 amI was there. Great article as

I was there. Great article as usual. I had a small wager on Delbert (2nd race) and later "almost claimed him" from Mr. Fitzsimmons on a Saturday afternoon in London at Western Fair Raceway. He was in a $5,000 claiming race and had drawn the rail. I had a fellow University student as a partner (Don Culham), and in one of my "true genius moments" I said to Don why don't we show Larry Fitzsimmons (he drove that day) the pink slip (in those days they did not announce or tell anyone about claims til after the race), and then he will surely try for the win and we can "invest" another $1,000 through the windows. We approached Larry showed him the claim slip and he was, to say the least, far from grateful for the information. He probably drove too hard trying for the lead and Delbert broke going into the first turn. When we went to get the horse after the race Larry was still "testy", he took off the halter let Delbert go and said he is all yours. After a few minutes of us chasing him and him attacking us we "sold" him back to Larry for $4,000. It took a few years for the humour of the situation to sink in for both of us!!

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