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SC Rewind: Rideau Carleton, Pt. 2

Published: April 23, 2016 8:45 am ET

Last Comment: April 25, 2016 7:42 pm ET | 5 Comment(s) | Jump to Comments

In this week's Rewind Robert Smith remembers the opening of Rideau Carleton Raceway in 1962. The landmark event marked the first brand new racetrack to be built during the decade which finally saw night time racing come to Ontario. This is the second and concluding part of a two-part offering.

A glittering view of the sport's newest grandstand and clubhouse on opening night at Rideau Carleton Raceway in Ottawa on Sept. 1, 1962 [Hoof Beats]

On the evening of Saturday, September 1, 1962 history was in the making as a huge crowd assembled for the eight o'clock post time at Rideau Carleton Raceway just south of Ottawa. For the first time in perhaps decades, a brand new racetrack in Canada was being christened. It was the dawning of a new era in Canadian harness racing as racing under the lights was now legal. A little over a year prior to this, a revamped and refurbished track in London kicked off the new age. Later in 1961, Old Woodbine in Toronto also 'threw the switch' to welcome in the newly approved activity.

Night racing soon went into almost 'epidemic' mode with Rideau's opening in 1962, Mohawk in 1963, Garden City following suit in the fall of 1964 and finally Windsor's inaugural happening in October of 1965. Truly the 'race' was on and new and better facilities were being built to accommodate a rapidly growing sport.

Sept. 1, 1962 - With a packed grandstand looking on, starter Tom McDonnell sent away a field of eight pacers in the new track's first ever race. With a purse of $400 on the line, the winner was the eight year old gelding Bud Castleton stopping the brand new timer in 2:12.1. The winning driver was Wes Coke, a young lad from Petrolia, Ont. who had just turned 19 about a month previous to this evening. Co-owner Bill Campion was on hand to have his picture taken along with a friend and Raceway chief James Baskin.

L-R: Darrel Simpson, Raceway Chief Jim Baskin and co-owner Bill Campion join driver Wes Coke and first race winner Bud Castleton in the winner's circle as Rideau Carleton starts operations.

On opening night the only double winning driver was Dr. John Findley of Arnprior who annexed both features with Palermo and Chief Canuck, also finishing second with Lexie Herbert, all from his quality stable. Other winning drivers included Allan Waddell (just 18 at the time), Yvon Plouffe, Wm. Pyke, Neil Curran and westerner Jim Wiener. The honour of recording the night's fastest mile went to driver Claude Miville, who piloted the venerable 13-year-old veteran Cracker Jack in a time of 2:07, thus establishing the first track record.

While history may reflect fondly on Rideau's opening night, it was not exactly that way in reality. From the horsemen's perspective, they were dealing with less than ideal conditions on the backstretch. Running water was not yet functioning and a tanker travelled about the grounds filling pails and barrels to satisfy the horse's needs. The ever-important track kitchen was also not yet open and the eventual racing office was still under construction so a makeshift trailer housed the administrative staff.

The grandstand while described as 'state of the art" (which it would soon be) was also not fully functional, especially lacking a major portion of the washroom facilities. With the huge crowd on hand, the newly-trained mutuel clerks were soon overwhelmed as they tried to accommodate the eager betting public. A large 'pool' of well-trained sellers and cashiers existed but a few miles away at Connaught Park but due to Provincial law they were somehow not able to fill these jobs. Reportedly long lines at the sellers and cashiers windows created havoc, perhaps even to an event or two being contested without wagering. (This may or may not have occurred). In any event I was told by one observer that a number of people left the premises quite upset, even vowing to never attend again.

In fairly short order, problems were resolved and most if not all systems began to function as planned. A good part of the complex was outfitted with new technology, particularly in the mutuels and thus everyone was travelling in 'uncharted waters'.

Northwood Alex is shown with a smiling circle of followers after setting a track record of 2:05.2 for three-year-old pacers at Rideau Carleton. From left: John Thompson, Mrs. Thompson, Molly Clouthier, Hector Clouthier Jr., Hector Cloutier Sr., Harvey Gallagher (driver), Teresa Giesebrecht, Paul Thetford and at the horse's head Edwin Schreader and Tom Clouthier.

Perhaps the Raceway's finest evening was enjoyed on Saturday, September 15 when nearly $94,000 was wagered; this was the largest handle of the season. A new track record for three-year-olds of 2:05.2 was set by Northwood Alex in winning the Hastings County Stake.

Another highlight was a repeat victory by Hi Acres Rudy in winning the $2,000 Invitational Pace. Just one week previous, this horse set the first year all-age mark of 2:03.4, driven on both occasions by Neil Curran for the Pastime Stables of nearby Smith Falls. That same evening the trotter Bye Bye Ezra won a $2,500 event in 2:08 with Ottawa Valley native Ken Carmichael in the bike for owner J. C. Cameron also of Smith Falls, beating Alice Lind and Fanny Symbol.

While the new raceway quickly settled into its nightly routine, a couple of problems soon plagued the track. Weather difficulties coupled with lower than anticipated mutuel handles began to place a financial burden on the fledgling operation. The management continued to hold to the purse structure as promised, but they had no control over the weather.

On October 30 an early season snowfall created what turned out to be a major problem and the final 'straw' for the Raceway. Despite a two-day accumulation of eight inches of the fluffy stuff, the Raceway was prepared to proceed with the evening's racing but then cancelled when it was discovered that most of the horses were not properly shod for the track's condition. Patrons were given rain checks and the mink coat giveaway scheduled for the evening was rescheduled to the following week.

At this time the Raceway Directors convened and a decision was made to shorten the racing calendar and in effect 'close up shop' for the inaugural season. Although the original plans called for racing up to November 24, officials decided to close down earlier based on the continuing weather problems. Perhaps it was an omen when on the evening of October 31, Halloween night, a horse named Thunder Shower driven by Lucien Plante was a visitor to the winner's circle.

On that evening the fog was so dense that fans purchased their tickets and joined in conversation with colleagues as not even the announcer could see the horses. One of the night's best finishes as the horses emerged from the 'grey veil' was Keystone Killean, handled by an 18-year-old Carman Hie, rewarding his backers with a $10.40 win payoff. Race caller Gil Lavine received numerous laughs and applause for his great ad libbing as horses disappeared and reappeared at various times in each race.

Despite the beautiful design and overall desirability, the track's first year of operation may have been termed a 'disaster', thanks mainly to a very long and unusual spell of horrendous weather. You might blame it all on one of mankind's oldest foes -- Mother Nature. The Raceway presented racing on a total of 54 nights during the inaugural meeting and of those, an incredible 37 times it rained! There were several other occasions when the races were marred by sleet, snow, hail and even dense fog. According to meteorological records this was the worst fall season since 1933 for inclement weather, especially snow.

On November 10 the track presented its final program of the season and the Ottawa Citizen's racing page headline read "Rideau Carleton ends in driving rainstorm". The final night of racing drew a decent crowd who braved the weather and wagered $53,289 which saw Piper Boy win the feature race. Ironically perhaps, both the young drivers who scored victories on the opening night also had wins on the closing card. Wes Coke was home first with Leela Chief and Allan Waddell won the sixth with Countdown C. from the barn of Earl Francis and Vern Waddell of South Mountain.

Unfortunately despite the best laid plans, the Raceway went into receivership by the end of its first year.

The building of a racetrack is obviously a monumental undertaking with at least as many risks as rewards possibly in store. As we now reflect on Rideau Carleton we do so with the benefit of hindsight and know that it has been a highly successful venture as planned and envisioned by Mr. Baskin. He passed away at the age of 79 in 1999, thus living to see his dream come to fruition for the benefit of the many who have called Rideau Carleton home for the past 55 racing seasons.

A page from the original program shows the field for the first ever race at the Rideau track. The order of finish shown at the left.

April 25, 2016 - 7:42 pmGreat article Robert. Knew

Great article Robert. Knew everyone in the Northwood Alex picture. Just wondering about the race of Thunder Shower and Lucien Plante? My dad owned a horse called Thunder Cloud at that time and Lucien Plante worked and drove for him, I think I have a picture somewhere. Maybe it was him ??. Jim Baskin was chairman of a matinee at Ben White Raceway and he rounded up about 5,000 people. He was quite a hustler. Rideau and Scioto sure are beautiful structures.Thanks again !!

April 24, 2016 - 12:39 pmMy best Rideau story would be

Will Boggs SAID...

My best Rideau story would be walking up to the windows as a 14 year old and cashing $1440 worth of tickets. Loved the look on the teller's face!

April 24, 2016 - 11:33 amI used to love going to

Norm Brunet SAID...

I used to love going to Rideau in the fall and sitting upstairs in the grandstand with a warm jacket and watching the races. Unfortunately when they brought in the slots they had to put all the heating and air conditioning hardware in the upper stands which makes it impossible to even hear yourself. I miss the good old days.

April 23, 2016 - 2:26 pmTruro Raceway had night

Bert Clish SAID...

Truro Raceway had night racing since 1949 and all of the maritime tracks raced under the lights in the 1950`s. Rideau Carleton would be the dawning era for Ontario harness racing. Appreciate seeing the weekly stories on the history of our sport. Keep up the great work.

April 23, 2016 - 10:15 amMr. Warren Armstrong and

Charlie Reid SAID...

Mr. Warren Armstrong and Robert Faskin were the best owners of any racetrack in Ontario. Mr. Armstrong is still there at the racetrack every night in the dining room to greet any owner or horseman that were racing that evening. I really wish he owned Kawartha Downs.

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