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SC Rewind: Canada's Greatest Racing Day

Published: March 12, 2016 8:42 am ET

Last Comment: March 18, 2016 2:37 pm ET | 6 Comment(s) | Jump to Comments

In this week's edition of Rewind, Robert Smith recalls what is regarded as one of the greatest days in Canadian Harness Racing history.

His story recalls an event from the glory days when Montreal's Richelieu Park was considered the "Mecca Of Trotting and Pacing". No bigger race had ever been staged and the outcome of the afternoon's proceedings immediately etched itself as one of the sport's greatest days in history.

Adios Butler, in rein to Eddie Cobb, glides to the wire in 1:58.2 with a huge Richelieu Park crowd looking on. Finishing second is Bye Bye Byrd (Clint Hodgins) with fourth-place finisher Tar Boy (Levi Harner) also in the picture. Out of camera range on the inside was third-place finisher Apmat with Billy Haughton in the sulky. [Hoof Beats]

The calendar has seen almost fifty-five years come and go since that glorious Sunday afternoon at Montreal's Richelieu Park. It was Sunday, July 16, 1961, a date often referred to by harness writers and historians as "The Day Harness Racing In Canada Came Of Age." If it wasn't exactly that, it was pretty darned close. Sometimes considered the cradle of harness racing by journalists and commentators, the Bout de I'lle track was long known for its hospitality and the quality of racing it presented on a regular basis. What better place for a history making day.

A half century or more ago harness racing in Canada and indeed across the Continent was on the rise. One of the key ingredients to many successful tracks was a good promoter. At this time there may not have been any better or more popular such figure than Georges Giguere. Originally a very capable trainer and driver, he started his lifetime affinity with the standardbreds in his native Quebec City. By 1961 he had long since laid his driving gear aside and was making things happen at the tracks in Metropolitan Montreal. He was more than just a race secretary; he had a certain 'flair' about him.

Georges knew virtually everyone in the business and was not afraid to run up some pretty hefty long distance bills to get in touch with whomever he thought would enhance the show in Montreal. He had long been known for his $15,000 Invitations but he felt there was more that could be done...a lot more.

He wanted to put on a $25,000 Invitational but he wasn't about to give such money out for anything short of the finest horses available. His initial hurdle was convincing track owner J. Louis Levesque to part with that kind of money. Remember back then that was a pretty good piece of change. After some long talks and persuasive arguments, Giguere finally got his way.

Starting in early June the ambitious Race Secretary started to put the race together; first on paper and then it started to take shape for real. Many years later in an interview he recalled how it all came about. "It didn't take me long to get the horses I wanted. I knew the drivers and trainers of all the best horses of that day, and every one of them agreed to co-operate." The "big" horse in 1961 was Adios Butler and Giguere reportedly secured him first; the others he invited one by one. "It was an All-Star cast and they didn't let him down" so stated a line in the Montreal Gazette.

An aerial view of Richelieu Park taken in 1956 showing a huge crowd and full parking lot. [Harness Horse]

As fate would have it, that Sunday afternoon was perfect in pretty much every way possible. Shortly before noon the old grandstand at Richelieu was nearly full. By first race post time some 17,000 avid fans jammed every available square inch to be had; some parked a mile away. Special buses brought people in from places like Kingston and Belleville in Ontario and of course from Trois Rivieres and Quebec City. The race attracted such wide-spread attention that it became the first harness race in history to be telecast on the CBC National network.

At this time children were not admitted into Richelieu Park. This did not however mean that a child deeply interested in harness racing couldn't see the race. At the head of the stretch stood the old Hotel Richelieu and its proprietor the genial Mr. Hubert Soucie graciously allowed certain individuals a perfect vantage point on a lower floor roof. I know of at least one individual who was there on the roof that day and he is a reader of these Rewind columns.

A view of the packed grandstand with the Richelieu Hotel in the background [Harness Horse]

Prior to this day just one sub-two minute mile had ever been recorded in Canadian history. It had occurred at this very track, almost two years to the day before this magical afternoon. As most people know it was Mighty Dudley with Keith Waples in the sulky that turned that first "magic mile" setting the new standard at 1:59.3. Mr. Giguere and his colleagues and indeed most in the audience were hoping for an even faster mile.

Presented as the ninth event of the afternoon's ten-race card, the big race turned out to be everything that Mr. Giguere had envisioned and more. As the horses left the post Delvin Miller left smartly with O'Brien Hanover and took the field down to the quarter pole in a blistering 29.1. As the clock recorded 59 flat at the half, Eddie Cobb slipped Adios Butler out of the three-hole and marched home in a heart stopping 1:58.2 with Bye Bye Byrd second and Apmat third. From all accounts the then five-year-old Adios Butler was never seriously challenged and won handily.

The picture displayed with today's story shows the two fastest horses in the sport at that time finishing 1-2 and surely no twosome ever thrilled more fans across the nation than Adios Butler and Bye Bye Byrd. This race could not have been staged even the year following as both horses were retired at the conclusion of the 1961 season and in fact this was Bye Bye Byrd's final appearance in a race.

It was the fastest mile ever to that date on a half-mile track in Canada with five of the seven horses timed in sub 2:00 speed. Only sixth place finisher Newport Admiral and Sir Winston Pick, the lone Canadian entry, failed to break the elusive barrier with the latter timed in 2:00.3. It became the fourth fastest mile in North American history over a half-mile oval and earned a special bonus of $1,000 for driver Eddie Cobb. Another long standing record was set as the huge crowd sent $585,000 through the mutuels.

Georges Giguere revealed later that he had full confidence from the start in the success of the venture but that his view was not held by all. He told the story that on Saturday evening prior to the race his boss Mr. Levesque drove down to the track to do a little checking of his own. Reportedly he went to the stables and checked every stall to see that the invited horses had all arrived. He still couldn't believe that his brilliant Race Secretary had pulled it off.

In later years a race named in honour of Adios Butler was established and held for many years at Richelieu Park. Special giveaways including coloured television sets and pictures of this famous horse were given out to lucky fans. It was a day to remember and surely one that anyone in attendance would never forget.

Summary and Results: International Invitational Pace - July 16, 1961

1 - Adios Butler (Eddie Cobb)
2 - Bye Bye Byrd (Clint Hodgins)
3 - Apmat (Wm. Haughton)
4 - Tar Boy (Levi Harner)
5 - O'Brien Hanover (Delvin Miller)
6 - Newport Admiral (Del Cameron)
7 - Sir Winston Pick (Roger White)

Times: 29.1; 59.2; 1:29.1; 1:58.2 (Track Fast)
Mile time was a Richelieu Park track record and a Canadian record

Post Script: When reading of things from the past one naturally wonders what the dollar value of that time period would be in comparison to today's numbers. Thanks to the Internet it is quite easy to translate these figures. Below I have listed a few comparisons between 1961 and 2016 using the handy inflation calculator.

Purse of $25,000 = $198,000
Mutuel Handle of $585,000 = $4,635,000
Day's total purses for 10 races $40,200 = $318,500
Adios Butler's lifetime earnings $509,844 = $4,040,000
Bye Bye Byrd's lifetime earnings $554,257 = $4,391,000

March 18, 2016 - 2:37 pmJust thought your readers

Garth Gordon SAID...

Just thought your readers might want to know that Clint Hodgins drove Adios Butler in his 3 year old year winning the Triple Crown .when the Butler turned 4 he had to give him up because he had Bye Bye Byrd and they were both F.F.A. Pacers. Yes I can name 100 horsemen that were stabled and raced at Richelieu.and I can tell you the colours of there driving silks .and I am sure you know most of them.

March 16, 2016 - 12:24 pmThanks to those who have

Thanks to those who have taken the time to send in their precious memories; they are all so special to hear. To Garth Gordon: you could probably mention 100 names and I wouldn't know any of them but the two you did, I recall both very well. Little Johnny Reid was a real talker and loved to mix with anyone who would listen (which included me many times). He and his wonderful wife Marion worked for Keith Waples at one time and also owned quite a few good horses of their own. The man named "Garney" was Garnet Crawford and he worked for a long time for Russ Miller, probably dating back to the days of free for aller Mr Galvin. I believe his wife may still be actively involved racing a horse at London. He passed on a number of years ago.
I stand corrected about this being Bye Bye Byrd's final race. He started twice more during that month. On July 21 he finished second at Brandywine and in his grande finale on July 31 he finished 7th and last at Roosevelt Raceway. On both occasions the race winner was Adios Butler.

March 15, 2016 - 11:26 amI was one of they lucky ones

murray brown SAID...

I was one of they lucky ones to be there that day. Its a day that I will remember for as long as I live.

I got there at about 10.00 AM and the grandstand was more than half full. the parking lots were full well before noon. People were parking as much as as two miles away and were walking to the track. The air was electric. The excitement was palpable.
By race time, one could barely move.

The race itself did not disappoint.

Georges Giguere was one of the greatest promoters and genial hosts our sport has ever known. Legend at the time had it that Mr Levesque had not quite acquiesced to Georges' request for the $25,000 purse, but Monsieur Giguere went ahead with it anyway, perhaps risking his job if things did not work out well.

A personal sidelight. I was 19 years old. On the Wednesday evening before the race I was sitting in the grandstand at Richelieu and was approached by a man who I had never seen before. He asked me if I spoke English.I of course said yes. He said "thank goodness". This was his first trip to Canada and he couldn't speak a word of French.
Richelieu, as opposed to Blue Bonnets was situated in a predominately French speaking part of Montreal. We went for something to eat after the races and I translated the menu for him.

It turned out that the man was Stanley Dancer's right hand man Dick Baker. Eddie Cobb had asked Stanley if he could borrow Mr Baker to go to Montreal and train Adios Butler on the Thursday morning before the race. Cobb had to be in New York where he was racing.

I was there the next morning when Dick trained him. He told me "he couldn't have been better". He said that if the weather was good he would shatter the Canadian record on Sunday. It was and he did.

March 14, 2016 - 5:11 pmYes 17000 on the grandstand

Garth Gordon SAID...

Yes 17000 on the grandstand side and another 2 or 3000 on the backstretch side. There was a little stand right by the paddock over looking the track and that's where I was the whole afternoon.seeing Billy Haughton,Clint Hodgins and Del Miller was really something for a 17 year old boy.they were movie stars to me.

I have four stories about that day all related to B.B.B.

The first story was B.B.B. Was not a very nice horse to be around. So they had a cage built in front of his stall so you could't get near or he would bite you.

The second story is about a little horsemen from Ailsa Craig is name was Jhon R Reid.he was about 5 feet tall maybe and like to talk a lot. he was character there was a lot of character's back then. He must have been racing that day because if he wasn't he would not have been allowed in the paddock. They were strict about that. So Clint bring a good friend of his let him go the first warm up mile with B.B.B. He was really excited when he came in and got of the jog cart every body was coming up to him to say that if B.B.B. Didn't race good it would be his fault.

The third story is back then if you had a invitation horse you would send two grooms to the paddock. There was a guy his name was Garny I don't his last name. He worked for Russell Miller he was the second groom for B.B.B. After Clint had gone the last warm mile he brought B.B.B. Back towards the paddock and stopped right below where I was standing. The main groom unchecked him and took of his head poles and Garny threw the coolers over his back as he did B.B.B. Kicked at him. Clint said Stand back and cracked him around his back leg's 2or3 times with his big black whip and said there will be no more of that.

The last story Clint moved B.B.B. Out at the 3/8 pole to flush out Adios Butler out of the three hole it worked. But the Butler cleared and left B.B.B. On the outside from the 1/2 on. He raced tough and wS solid second . I didn't know that was last would be interesting to know why. The picture you have posted of Adios Butler winning was givin to me by John Hayes about 6 month's ago. I had it framed and is hanging in our house.

I have some great horse racing memories but none come close to Sunday "July 16 1961".
Thank's again Robert.

March 12, 2016 - 8:05 pmAdios Butler was superb that

Adios Butler was superb that day ! I was 11 years old and sitting on the roof of the Richelieu Hotel. Mr. Hubert Soucie the owner of the hotel was a great friend of my Dad, Hector Sr. and when he knew I was with Dad Mr. Soucie let me sit on the roof to watch the races. Since the hotel was located at the top of the stretch it provided a fantastic vantage spot because you could see the horses barrelling around the final turn heading for home.

That particular day owes its place in history to Georges Giguere who was a maestro when it came to showcasing the sport of harness racing. There is no doubt in my mind that no one else except "Dapper" Georges could have persuaded those drivers, trainers and owners to bring their world class horses to Montreal that day and getting the notoriously frugal Jean Louis Levesque to put up 25 grand was a minor miracle.

Those were the halcyon days of our sport. Regretfully Richelieu Parc has been replaced with a housing development but the wonderful memories of that spectacular day remain!

Thanks Robert .

March 12, 2016 - 12:09 pmOnce again Mr. Smith, a

Once again Mr. Smith, a beautiful recall of racing in the earlier years. I was there that afternoon in the grandstand, in the top row, and cheered for Bye Bye Byrd... and I lost to a better horse. Thanks for the memories.

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