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SC Rewind: Flamboro Opens (2/3)

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Published: March 20, 2010 10:05 am ET

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In this week's Rewind, Robert Smith recounts the start-up and opening night at Flamboro Downs from nearly 35 years ago in the second of a three-part series.

The evening of Wednesday, April 9, 1975 will undoubtedly go down in the annals of Canadian harness racing history as one of the great openings of a new track. It might well be termed a "fairy tale" as so many unbelievable happenings took place. It has been said that we only have once chance to record history and this grand opening was quite a spectacle.

Long before the first race post time of 7:30, patrons began to stream into the new facility. Any fears that track officials had about lack of interest were quickly dispelled; people came in droves. 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 in every direction even after the third race. Some accounts said the traffic jams were up to 10 miles in length, others said 5; in any event it seemed like the place to be with the official attendance listed as 6,532. I can't help but wonder if this might have been the last time people were turned away from a racetrack...

The combination of a large crowd and some inexperience by both bettors and mutuel clerks resulted in another set of long lines, these at the windows. However when the night's tallies were taken, the handle was $232,190, respectable by any standard. A tired but very happy President Mr. Connell summed up the evening saying, "We are very pleased with the turnout and the evening as a whole," also stating that any problems were minor and would soon be worked out. He seemed as much worried about those turned away and hoped they would soon return.

With all the finishing touches in place it was time to start the show out on the track. Nine races were scheduled by Race Secretary Ralph Hayman. Race number one was for maidens, carrying a purse of $800 and attracted eight starters. First home and first in the new track's record books was Classic Jester driven by Albert Nickle in his wine and white silks 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 8th 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 long shot, in a gate to wire victory termed "pulsating" by the Press. 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. All of the evening's winning participants received a cooler compliments of Mr. Connell. To quote the old time saying, "A good time was had by all." About the only missed opportunity for more drama occurred in the sixth race when hunch bettors were disappointed when the horse "Honourable Ray" finished sixth in a seven-horse field.

Many words of praise punctuated the evening, the majority to do with the new track and its elevated turns. Carman Hie, a CTA Director and brother of two race winning driver Doug Hie, said "single file racing is no longer a must and some exciting finishes can be expected with these turns." Bill Wellwood, also a CTA Director, said "this is a first class operation and will fill a real void in Ontario racing." Ron Waples, who had won the second race, took more of a "wait and see" approach feeling the track needed to "settle a bit" more before he would fully assess it. An obviously happy Doug Hie said, "You just seem to slip around those banked turns."

As the evening closed, the infield tote board flashed the words "Ray Connell We Love You! from Flamboro Downs Staff". Thus ended a great opening night and now a night to be remembered by all who were there or a few like me who have enjoyed reliving the moment through the words of those who recorded the day's events in print.

Mr. Connell's closing words were, "This is one of the proudest moments of my life."

Next week I will recall some highlights from the very early days at Flamboro Downs and also the people who were there to kick the new venture off.


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