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SC Rewind: Years Ago - 1950s

Published: March 3, 2018 11:42 am ET

Last Comment: March 7, 2018 6:46 pm ET | 12 Comment(s) | Jump to Comments

In this week's Rewind Robert Smith takes his monthly look at the happenings and personalities from the decade of the 1950's in the ongoing feature Years Ago. The Fifties was a great era of growth, excitement and memorable happenings in the sport of harness racing. It was a time of gradual change from a country fair activity to a major sport. His recollections including several old photos help to paint a 'picture' of those days gone by.

1950 - Thorncliffe Park Launches New Venture


A field of horses approaches the start of a race at Thorncliffe Park in 1950. Starter Cliff Bradley is perched in the back of a streamlined Cadillac starting gate previously used at Fairmount Park in Illinois. A portion of the crowd is visible in the background. This facility was equipped with lights but they were never used as night racing was not allowed in Ontario at this time. (Picture was a gift to me from Michael Burns Sr.)

Ontario racing fans experienced an entirely new dimension in harness racing in July of 1950 when Thorncliffe Park located in the Leaside Park area of Toronto introduced an extended summer meeting that lasted seven weeks starting on July 3rd. The Thorncliffe complex was not new but had undergone numerous updates to meet the requirements of the times. It included pari-mutuel wagering for the first time in the Province and also featured a number of amenities such as a state-of-the-art Cadillac starting gate and a modern grandstand.

This meeting immediately attracted a number of the top horsemen of the day which of course meant that many of the best horses were available for weekly competition. That first year well-known horsemen such as Bill and Jack Herbert, Earl Rowe, Marshall Moore, Keith Waples, Harold Wellwood, Cecil Champion, Cliff Chapman and countless more soon occupied the updated stables which included breezeways where many people slept. The conveniences such as a track restaurant, blacksmith shops and racing silks supplied by the track were new to many. Thanks to a gentleman named Hal B. Watson, a noted racing journalist of the day, racing fans could follow the action from his daily column in the Toronto paper.


Oro G. Herbert is shown with all four feet off the ground as he sets the Thorncliffe track record of 2:04.1 for driver and co-owner Jack Herbert. He also held the 1-1/16 mile best of 2:14.1. Photo by Michael Burns Sr.


While Thorncliffe operated for just four seasons ending in 1953, this venture which eventually blossomed into the Ontario Jockey Club started the future of the sport in Ontario that continues to this day, a span of almost 70 years. The list of those who actually competed at or visited Thorncliffe Park is today amazingly short. Thanks to famed photographer Michael Burns Sr., many pictures help to record those days.

1951 - Racing At Colborne, Ont.


Thor Grattan and driver Cliff Hie lead the field at the annual race day in Colborne, Ont. The pair were double heat winners that afternoon in 1951.


Oct. 20, 1951 - A day of racing was held at this small community in Northumberland County as it was on many occasions over the years. Three races, each consisting of two heats for a purse of $120.00 entertained the rather large crowd. Local horseman Cliff Hie of nearby Cobourg captured both heats of the Free-For-All as he piloted Thor Grattan to a double victory over a field of five. In the 26 Class Pace Thor Grattan's full brother, Hal Grattan Patch also took both heats with Jack Gordon in the sulky. Both horses are co-owned by the partnership of Hie & Gordon.

In the other race, a 20 Class Pace, two entrants shared wins. In the opener Rocket Hanover was home first for owner and driver H.G. Bone of Port Hope. In the second heat Turnabout was the winner for James McIntyre of Peterborough with Ed Stanbury handling the driving duties. Identically timed miles of 2:14 turned in by Thor Grattan and Turnabout were the fastest of the afternoon.

Like most small Town race meetings those who worked behind the scenes invariably made the day a success. At Colborne a gentleman named Hilton White did a great deal of work including serving as the track announcer. This fellow was the uncle of well-known horseman Nelson White. One year, despite the races being held in late October, it snowed. Hilton was visibly upset and exclaimed "It always snows at Colborne the day we have the races."

These small places have nearly all disappeared but are not forgotten.

1954 - London Free Press Feature At Batavia Downs


London Free Press writer Jack Parks (centre) appears trackside with a pair of winners who finished in a dead heat for win. On the left is Arch's Choice (Wm. Harvey) sporting his new cooler and on the right Gardner Hanover with driver Levi Harner. Batavia G.M. Herman Grannis is in the background.


Oct. 11, 1954 - For many years the London Free Press sponsored a special race at Batavia Downs. It was customary for Jack Parks the longtime horse racing journalist and predecessor of Harry Eisen, to be in attendance for the event and make a presentation. Coincidentally on more than one occasion a Canadian entry was the recipient of an inscribed cooler that made its way back home.

In the 1954 edition, an unusual event happened when a dead heat occurred. Reaching the wire at the same time was Arch's Choice in rein to well known Canadian driver Wm. "Ancaster Bill" Harvey and Gardner Hanover piloted by Levi Harner, a perennial top driver at the Batavia oval.

Unfortunately Mr. Parks had just one cooler which was presented to Arch's Choice but provision was made to supply the identical item to the owner of Gardner Hanover, Mr. T.J. Zornow of Pittsford, N.Y. At this time many Canadian-based stables spent their spring, summer and fall seasons between Buffalo Raceway and Batavia Downs.

1954 - Canadian Horses Of The Year Named

Based on a reader poll conducted by The Canadian Sportsman this year's various divisional leaders were named recently. They are as follows:

Horse Of The Year - Star Volo nicknamed "The Steam Engine" owned by J.P. Lachapelle of Joliette, Que. and driven by Francois LeBoeuf. A winner of over $20,000 he won 21 heats in 33 starts and set a new track record of 2:04 at Richelieu Park. Also high in the voting results was H B Chief who made 22 visits to the winner's circle for driver Jules Giguere.

Argyel Grattan, owned and driven by Duncan Campbell of Ailsa Craig, Ont., was named Ontario's Horse of the Year. His record of 2:02.2 set a new Canadian record at the newly-opened Old Woodbine course in Toronto. This marked his third straight year to top the polls and he was second in the National Polls. Other horses who drew votes included three-year-old Mr. Galvin, Jimmys Champ and Clark Herbert.

Voted the best in Western Canada was Eddie Riggs who scored 24 victories in 27 starts for owner driver Eddie Lutz of Mistatim, Sask. Now a seven-year-old he has recorded an amazing 70 wins in the past three seasons.

The trotting sensation Ben Boy was regarded as the class of the trotting performers at Woodbine and for the third straight year gained top marks. His victory in the Maple Leaf Trot was the highlight of his four-year-old campaign. Owned by Mrs. Ruth Wray of Schomberg the slick son of Van Riddell was trained and driven by Keith Waples.

1957 - Record Crowds and Wagering at Blue Bonnets

July 8, 1957 - Fans at Blue Bonnets were treated to a couple of top level events on this weekend as some of the best of both gaits were on display. In the featured $10,500 Guy H Pace Saturday honouring one of the Provinces all time greats, the winner was Bay State Pat in near track record time of 2:03.2 for driver Del MacTavish. Current record holder Ezra Dean with Harley Harrison up was second. Star Volo and Frenchy Leboeuf took down third place. A record crowd of over 14,000 watched all the exciting action and set a new Canadian betting record of $324,478.

Impressive as well in a $2,200 Handicap event was Smokey Online who scored in a snappy 2:03.4 for Vern Waddell who also owns. This marked his eighth win in 10 season starts and despite that the Western Canada based horse went off at better that odds of 5-1.


​In the weekend's top trotting event Jeffrey Scott (2) shipped in from Yonkers to tackle the best local talent and with Clint Hodgins in the sulky prevailed over Kahla Key (8) and driver Jim Weiner in an impressive 2:03.4. The time equalled the track record currently held by Kahla Key. Finishing third in the $3,500 event was Lord Steward (5) and Dick Williams.

Who Is It?

Can you identify this gentleman? The correct answer will be given during the coming week.

March 7, 2018 - 6:46 pmI think in the picture of

Chuck Ibey SAID...

I think in the picture of Cliff Hie at Colborne in 1951, driving Thor Hanover, the driver of the 2nd horse may be Howard McQuigge - not 100% sure though.

March 7, 2018 - 8:43 amThis week's picture as

This week's picture as answered by several respondents was Clarence "Sugar" Gagnon a long time horseman who originated in Western Canada namely Carman, Manitoba.

Answer to Mr. Kelly. I am guessing you are referring to the once very popular Grattan strain of horses that from about 1920 onward populated the racetracks across the land in huge numbers. Also there were a lot of "Volo" names, many linked to the prolific sire Volomite and others. Maybe sometime I will do a Rewind about the Grattan breed and their influence on our sport.

March 4, 2018 - 3:33 pmRobert... My Dad told me he

Tom Kelly SAID...

Robert... My Dad told me he raced horses at the Lindsay and Bobcaygeon Fairs. I saw my first race with my friends in Peterborough, at their fair (Morrow Park). My friend was Alex Stewart and later Donnie Bye. Would you remember the Gratton or the Volvo names? Might have been 1940 s or 1950s? Did they sire any offspring? Thanks.

March 4, 2018 - 2:15 pmThe mystery photo is Clarence

Garth Gordon SAID...

The mystery photo is Clarence “Sugar “ Gagnon. I remember him as Keith Waples' second trainer. He was a hard worker and when given the chance, he could drive a horse with the best of them.

March 4, 2018 - 9:29 amIf Clarence Gagnon had a

gord waples SAID...

If Clarence Gagnon had a cigarette teetering on the edge of his lips it would have been a giveaway as to his identity. Thanks for the articles Robert, great stuff of how good it was!

March 4, 2018 - 12:20 amLooks like Clarence “Sugar”

Bill Sharpe SAID...

Looks like Clarence “Sugar” Gagnon...

March 3, 2018 - 3:37 pmGreat job Robert. Those were

Great job Robert. Those were the good old days. Keep up the great work.

March 3, 2018 - 3:24 pmI don’t know if I was at

Garth Gordon SAID...

I don’t know if I was at Colborne in 1951 - I probably was my dad took me everywhere. But I was there the day Hilton was complaining about the snow. I remember being at Thorncliffe and was at Old Woodbine the day Argyel Gratton set the Canadian record of 2:02 2/5. My dad went to Blue Bonnets in September of 1955 and the first Sunday afternoon he raced I saw Ezra Deen, Bay State Pat and Star Volo race in the F.F.A. Pace. I was there to witness the huge crowds at Richelieu and Blue Bonnets. That was really something to see. “Great Memories“. I know it is a lot of work for you to do these articles Robert, and I for one appreciate it.

March 3, 2018 - 1:41 pmClarence Lockhart

John Hill SAID...

Clarence Lockhart

March 3, 2018 - 1:30 pmClarence Gagnon! GREAT stuff

Clarence Gagnon! GREAT stuff from the 1950's Robert. Nice to see a Hie in front, cutting the fractions. The boys were, and are, pretty much rail huggers!

March 3, 2018 - 1:05 pmClarence Gagnon

W Doug HIe SAID...

Clarence Gagnon

March 3, 2018 - 12:17 pmClarence Gagnon

gord waples SAID...

Clarence Gagnon


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