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SC Rewind: The First To Be First

Published: February 9, 2019 9:52 am ET

Last Comment: February 18, 2019 3:29 pm ET | 14 Comment(s) | Jump to Comments

In this week's edition of 'Rewind' Robert Smith turns back the hands of time to recall the many first-race winners at a number of Canadian racetracks, both current and a few that no longer exist. He welcomes readers to add to the list of locations and also to recall and share their memories of those opening days or nights. This offering because of its length will also be covered in future editions of Rewind.

Foreword - The opening of a new racetrack has always been a momentous occasion. During certain time periods such as the 1950's in the U.S. and the 1960's in Canada, there was a boom in the building of new tracks. The first afternoon or evening of competition at a new location immediately etched itself into the long history of the sport. There is always a certain "electricity" in the air and a feeling that accompanies being part of such a special event. Racing fans it seems have always made a special effort to attend openings of new tracks.

I can recall a conversation many years ago with the late Harold Wellwood Sr. (unquestionably my all time favourite), and he had a theory. "Whenever a new track starts up, I will be there to help them get started." I know he was stabled at a lot of opening meetings on both sides of the border dating all the way back to the historic opening of Roosevelt in 1940. That was when racing under the lights first started.

The tracks are listed in alphabetical order and the list includes Ontario tracks only due to availability of information.

Barrie Raceway - Barrie, Ont.

In 1973, eight years after the opening of the sport's premiere winter racing facility in Windsor, Barrie Raceway was built. It too was designed for winter action under the watchful eye of three generations of the Rowe family. Shown above just prior to its opening, General Manager Earl Rowe Jr. is shown outside the brand new facility. Visible in the background is a tradesman on a ladder putting some finishing touches on the grandstand and clubhouse.

Located at the Barrie Fairgrounds the old Barrie Raceway held its first card of racing on the evening of Wednesday, December 19, 1973. The first race was won by Dukes Jane owned by Sam Lackey of Orangeville and driven by his nephew Bob Lackey. This then four-year-old trotter, a product of the famous Rowelands Farm of nearby Newton Robinson, negotiated the snow-covered track in a mile time of 2:16. Despite a rather large snowstorm, a nice crowd showed up to welcome the new facility; large enough that the gates were closed after the second race.

Barrie saw a lot of snow storms and weathered them all. In May of 1985 they were not so fortunate when a tornado swept right through the track area and nearly obliterated the entire plant. Many permanent fixtures such as air conditioning units were blown far away. A horse was sucked from his stall and blown several hundred metres across the road but survived. The track was out of action for over four months rebuilding.

This track was built for winter racing under the watchful eye of Wm. Rowe and his father The Hon. Earl Rowe. Just seven years previous to this time the Rowes were also instrumental in the opening of Windsor Raceway, a highly successful track also designed for winter racing. While the Barrie track was initially successful, the ongoing acrimony between the Fair Board that controlled the land and the track operators led to its closing in 2001 after 29 seasons.

A recent Rewind was dedicated to the opening of the old Barrie Raceway.

Dresden Raceway - Dresden, Ont.

Harness racing has been held at the Dresden fairgrounds for parts of three centuries dating back to some time in the 1800's. Racing was held annually at fair time which was usually around labour day weekend. It was often the site chosen for the annual Supertest stakes and other colt events. In 1966, the local racing committee decided to upgrade the site and install lights for nighttime racing on a regular basis. A lot of history has followed.

Racing under the lights debuted on July 23, 1966 creating a landmark happening at this track. On opening night, local horseman Ellis Dell of Becher won the first race as he piloted his own Lorene Lee to victory. On opening night he scored four wins, and the following week he won another five. The inaugural nighttime meeting lasted eight weeks, all on Saturday nights, drawing some 20,000 fans who wagered over $320,000. It was a gratifying first season and paved the way for several decades of first-class racing.

Well-known Dresden area horseman Ellis Dell, who won four races on opening night at Dresden, is pictured above. He and his family were very active for many years at Dresden Raceway

For many years under the guidance of Race Secretary George Deacon, the Dresden track was a major "B" track with excellent facilities and first-class racing. It continues to operate each summer but like most other small tracks the crowds are much smaller and the excitement of the glory days are long past. I can personally recall being in attendance during the first year night racing was held. In 1987 my wife, and our oldest daughter accompanied me to help celebrate "Pioneer Night" when several local horsemen were honoured by the track and we were on the list of invited guests.

Flamboro Downs - Dundas, Ont.

The above scene shows the very beginnings of the Flamboro Downs track which opened at Dundas, Ont. in 1975. It was a bit of a departure from recent track builds as it featured the traditional half-mile racetrack with some very new design features intended to make it safer and faster.

This track was built with a half-mile track long after five-eighths mile ovals became popular for harness racing. Chas. Juravinski watched over every aspect of the building of this track, making sure that no detail was overlooked. The evening of Wednesday, April 9, 1975 was opening night with a crowd of 6,532 on hand. First home and first in the new track's record books was Classic Jester driven by Albert Nickle in a time of 2:10. The second race was won handily by a horse named Puff Of Smoke and driven by a 30-year-old youngster named Ron Waples. Races 3 and 4 were won by another young teamster, Doug Hie. He first clicked behind Highland Harry owned by Cecil Pollard and then with trotter Lee Clay. Race 5 went to Jake Tona and pilot Ray McLean. Race 6 was captured by Brets Creed handled by Brian Webster. Race 7 went to Twinkles Duke with Wayne Stead steering. The final event of opening night was won by Janet Wilson driven by William Wilson.

The eighth and feature race which carried the name "The Ray Connell Opening Day Invitational Pace" was for a purse of $2,500 and attracted five starters. A local veteran, Cliff Sheppard steered his own horse Thorncrest, a longshot, in a gate-to-wire victory. Time of the mile and a Day One track record was 2:06.1, holding off Ivan Hope and a late surge by the favourite Bregman Hanover.

The 5,000 programs (at 50 cents each) that had been printed for opening night were sold out long before start time. By first post, nearly 6,500 people had filed into the track and many more were turned away. There was simply no place to squeeze them in to a facility that was designed to comfortably hold around 4,000. Long lines of traffic led up to the track; many had to wait for another opportunity to make their first visit to the new Flamboro Downs.

Garden City Raceway - St. Catharines, Ont.

A view from the brand new Garden City clubhouse as the starter calls for the horses on opening night in October 1964 (Harness Horse)

In the fall of 1964 the Ontario Jockey Club opened their third major raceway located in the Niagara peninsula in the heart of grape country. Opening night was held on October 26, 1964 and the first ever race winner was an 11-year-old gelding named Chuckmor, driven by Clarence Hilliard for owner Joan Durant of Markham, Ont. The opening held on a Monday evening drew a crowd of 4,687 fans who sent $160,000 through the brand new mutuel system.

The publicized price tag for the new state of the art facility was stated as $3,500,000 and sat on a 400-acre site. Purses ranged from $600 to a high of $2,000 for the featured Jr. Invitational which was won by Pine Ridge Danny driven by Don McNutt. The fastest mile that first night belonged to the rugged campaigner The McNab who stopped the timer in 2:07 flat for owner Wilfred McNab and driver Archie Llewellyn, originally from the Maritimes.

A young Wm. Wellwood, just 24 at the time, became the leading U.D.R.S. driver during the inaugural meeting as he registered an average of. 561, the highest in O.J.C. history to that point in time. Ron Feagan, just 22 years of age, led in dashes won with 19. It was truly a time for a youth movement in the sport as numerous young talented drivers were making their living as full-time horsemen. The 36-night session attracted almost 92,000 paying customers who wagered $4,600,000.

Georgian Downs - Innisfil, Ont.

In November of 2001 Georgian Downs became the first new track of the 21st century to be constructed in Canada and the 14th in Ontario to embrace slots. Situated just west of Highway 400 near the municipality of Innisfil, Ont., it in effect replaced the former Barrie Raceway which was located just five miles away. The track, built by the Rowe family, took some two years to complete at a cost of around $30 million after breaking ground in the fall of 2000. The track site consisted of just 75 acres about a half-hour drive from Toronto.

In this venture a couple of third generation members of the iconic Rowe family occupied strategic positions. Jane Rees, the granddaughter of The late Hon. Earl Rowe and daughter of Wm. Rowe, became the first President of the new Georgian Downs following her role as General Manager of the recently-shuttered Barrie Raceway. Her cousin Scott Rowe served as Chairman of the Board.

One of the original aims of the track was to continue many of the traditions from the former Barrie oval. A mural of the old facility was part of the new structure. The architect wanted the barn shape as a central theme and the tower evolved out of the design. With its barn-like atmosphere there existed a family-like atmosphere between all parties. As an example of that, a budding rose garden was created just outside the paddock. The garden was started as a memorial to Ruth Rowe, wife of Bill Rowe and of course mother to Jane, who had just passed away around the time the track opened. To start the project the track's employees donated $700.

The track opened on Tuesday, November 13, 2001, followed by the official opening exactly one week later as they ushered in a new era in harness racing. The new Raceway's first ever winner was a grey trotting mare with the interesting name of Chinandtonic, scoring in 2:03. The driver was Jim McClure for owners Chris Ververidis, Jeffrey Gillis and Greg Marchildon. Other drivers listed in the opener included Steve Byron, Larry Hughes, Gary Mahon, Wade McCoy, Kelvin Rose, Fred Brethour, Brad Rae, Tom Smith. Listed as an also eligible driver was Trevor Henry.

Grand River Raceway, Elora, Ont.

This racing facility is truly from the modern age. Built with much more than harness racing in mind it was opened as a multi use facility on December 3, 2003. However it did not open for its first card of harness racing until April 26, 2004, followed by a grand opening on May 10, 2004. Hampered by inclement weather opening day was still a huge success.

Above is a photo of the Race 1 horses behind the gate on April 26, 2004 Grand River's first day of racing (Iron Horse Photo)

The winner of the first race on April 26, 2004 was Jeremys Flight, a 62-1 longshot which circled the field at the half to win by three-quarters of a length in 1:58. It was his 7th career win. The four-year-old was owned and trained by Joey Ayotte and driven to this memorable victory by Scott Coulter.

In a recent conversation with Kelly Spencer, a long-time fixture at the Elora track she remarked "Several of the managers (myself included) remarked to one another how fitting it was that a massive longshot should win the first-ever race, given the struggle we’d overcome and odds we had beaten to get the new facility in place."

Above is a photo of driver Scott Coulter and Jeremys Flight leaving the winners circle after winning the first race ever at the newly opened Grand River Raceway in 2004. (Iron Horse Photo).

February 18, 2019 - 3:29 pmThere seems to be some

Jeff Porchak SAID...

There seems to be some confusion over the location of Garden City Raceway, so I've discussed with Robert and we've included a few maps of the area. These would all indicate the track was in fact located on the south side of the QEW.

February 13, 2019 - 3:16 pmAt Garden City they raced

James Milne SAID...

At Garden City they raced Sunday afternoon. On September 15, 1968, I wondered why the big crowd rose and gave the winner a standing ovation after the seventh race. St. James Street with Dunc MacTavish driving had won in 1:59.3. This was hailed as the first two minute mile at Garden City since the track opened in 1964.

February 13, 2019 - 11:57 amI can remember my one and

Bill Harris SAID...

I can remember my one and only visit to Garden City like it was yesterday. We were originally from Cobourg, Ontario moving to London for my dad's job at the time, and we'd make regular summer weekend visits to Cobourg. Usually my dad and I would head to Kawartha Downs after dinner on Saturdays. This one time he was in a big rush to get dinner over in hurry and get to the races. Usually we'd head up Burnham St then over to 28 and on to KD. This time he headed west on 401. And this is when he told me we were heading to GC. We got there at 5 minutes to post for the first which was an amazing feat in itself. Turns out it was all pre-planned as my dad's 3 cronies were already there. Mike, Augie, and Max the bookie. Anyway, I hadn't made a bet all night and the $10 was burning a hole in my pocket. Dave Wall was my driving hero at the time and he had a free legged pacer who think was called Peppy Wal!. He was going off at 50-1 and that's where my $10 was going. Max says he'll book anything I want to bet on that 'nag'. I gave him my money and wanted 2w 4p and 4s. Dave came flying at the end finished 2nd and paid $44 to place and 26 to show. Best night I ever had to that point. I think it was '74 or '75. Dave even survived an inquiry.

February 10, 2019 - 2:15 pmThanks Leon, you are

Thanks Leon, you are absolutely correct with Carman Hie and the GC bridge. There used to be an old song titled "Cross Over The Bridge" by Patti Page but way before your time I am sure.

February 10, 2019 - 9:52 amNice stories of the tracks

David Darocy SAID...

Nice stories of the tracks you have listed Mr. Smith, looking forward to the future editions. Also of interest, notice the race program that Mr. Earl Rowe Jr. is holding - “WINDSOR RACEWAY”.

February 9, 2019 - 8:05 pmOk Robert I'll bite. My guess

Leon Siple SAID...

Ok Robert I'll bite. My guess as to the ID of the first man to drive a horse over that famous GC bridge is Carman Hie.

February 9, 2019 - 3:54 pmWhen the Garden City track

When the Garden City track was built there was no bridge over Glendale. The horses crossed with the aid of a traffic light and a security guard. In 1969 a bridge was built at a cost of $30,000 and a well known (still active) horseman was the first to officially drive his horse across it. A ceremonial picture was taken to mark the occasion. People used to park their cars along Glendale to watch the races and thus save the price of admission. In those days racing fans loved to be at the track but didn't always want to pay.

February 9, 2019 - 2:48 pmI remember at Garden City the

John Hill SAID...

I remember at Garden City the track was on one side of Glendale and the stables were on the other side. We had to drive the horses up a bridge to cross over to the track and paddock. From the QEW (skyway bridge) from Hamilton you would take the Glendale exit and the track was about a mile down the road. It was on the Niagara Falls side of town, many horsemen rented rooms on Lundys Lane in nearby Niagara Falls.

February 9, 2019 - 2:13 pmActually, it was on the north

Sheldon Rose SAID...

Actually, it was on the north side of the QEW just above Glendale Ave.

February 9, 2019 - 1:53 pmKeith, I believe the best

Jeff Porchak SAID...

Keith, I believe the best landmark I can give you is the location of the Bass Pro Shops on the south side of the QEW. In fact, if you look at the satellite view of the mall, there's an oval-shaped road which I'm sure I was told is an acknowledgement of the track's former location.

February 9, 2019 - 1:03 pmI should have clarified a

I should have clarified a little more. I knew Garden City was at St. Catharines. I was hoping someone could refresh my memory with a little more exact location. Was it right in the city, along the QEW, towards Niagara Falls, more Hamilton way etc. All the other tracks in this Rewind I could get in my car today and drive to them without a problem. Even Barrie which is no longer at that location (at least I think I could.) Garden City, not so much.

February 9, 2019 - 12:40 pm"Garden City Raceway - St.

Dan Fisher SAID...

"Garden City Raceway - St. Catharines, Ont."

February 9, 2019 - 12:12 pmWhile hardly unique I'm sure,

While hardly unique I'm sure, I can say I have been to all of the tracks mentioned in this article. Although my guess would be that, given the length of time that Garden City and Barrie have both been closed, many participants in racing today would not have had the chance to visit. I was only ever at Garden City once (at the ripe old age of 17), and try as I might, I can't remember exactly where it was located.

February 9, 2019 - 11:42 amAnother very interesting

Another very interesting article. Well done.

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