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SC Rewind: Memories From Batavia

Published: April 27, 2019 11:02 am ET

Last Comment: May 3, 2019 4:21 pm ET | 4 Comment(s) | Jump to Comments

In the current edition of 'Rewind,' Robert Smith takes a look back at the role that Batavia Downs played in the earlier history of Canadian harness racing. His piece includes a few personal memories and also some old photos from many years ago at the Batavia track.


An old postcard shows a great view of Batavia Downs at the start of a race. In the distant background the stable area is visible

Sixty years and more ago Canadian harness horsepeople were "flocking" to Batavia Downs in Batavia, New York. With little in the way of racing opportunities in Canada, and particularly in Ontario, horsemen from north of the border were at "The Friendly Track" (as Batavia was often known) in record numbers. Scarcely a night went by that did not see multiple winners either driven by or owned by Canadian horsepeople. I guess you could call it a home away from home.


Members of the Royal Canadian Navy were guests at Batavia on this occasion and participated in the winners circle presentations shown below. (Harness Horse)



Driver Vic Rowntree smiles his approval following a victory behind Hi Duke at Batavia Downs. Members of the Toronto and Rochester, N.Y. naval offices appear in the winner's circle. Second from left is John Maas, Batavia Gen. Mgr. and on the far right is Frank Van Lare, Vice Mayor of Rochester

This rush was not anything new, as dating back to 1940 the year "The Downs" opened for night racing Batavia was a favourite haunt for Canadians. Located just 30 miles or so from the Buffalo - Fort Erie border crossing, it was a pretty handy spot. At this time the purses were very favourable and with a wide range of classes offered and racing held six nights a week; it was a real haven. This when coupled with other amenities such as good eating and lodging places all added to the allure of racing at Batavia Downs. It was not unusual for horse loving people to make a long weekend visit and attend the races each evening.

I picked out a few highlights from the 1953 season as an illustration. That year the Batavia season opened on Monday, August 3 and went all the way through to October 31 without a stop. It didn't take long on opening night for a couple of Canadian drivers to visit the winner's circle. First to make it there was a trotting mare named Dixie Tass, owned and driven by Floyd Milton. A race or two later, it was the venerable pacer Dividend II owned by Russell Miller of Dutton, Ont. and driven by Johnny Chapman. During opening week many more Canadian teamsters recorded wins.

The names of Harold Wellwood, Bud Gilmour, Lorne Tolhurst, Ed Arthur, Joe Hodgins, Bill and Jack Herbert, Almer Holmes, Jack Mehelenbacher, Wm. J "Ancaster Bill" Harvey, Vic Rowntree, Dick Johnson, Bob Givens, Don Courneau, Dr. John Findley, Norman Conley and undoubtedly others that I have missed joined the parade. Many of the horse people worked together and if someone had to be away or when an injury occurred, a fellow "Canuck" would invariably step in and help. Many of the competing horsemen lived just across the street in a mobile home court which put them close to their work.


Wm. "Bud" Gilmour was a fan favourite and also leading driver on many occasions at Batavia. The native of Ridgeway, Ont. spent a lot of productive seasons at "the friendly track". He was assisted by his brothers George and Guy in the operation of his large stable.



A young Johnny Chapman flashes a smile following a victory many years ago. He was one of many Canadian-born drivers that furthered their careers at the famed Batavia track. (Harness Horse photo)

One Canadian horseman who was making his first ever visit to Batavia in 1953 had a highly productive campaign with a very small but powerful stable of horses he owned, trained and drove. His family did the caretaking. Duncan Campbell was a regular Saturday night feature participant with his amazing Argyel Grattan. This horse was Canada's most prolific winner that year and he won a number of top class races at this oval to close out the season.


Another Batavia Downs cooler will make its way back to Canada as Argyel Grattan and owner-driver Duncan Campbell appear in the winner's circle. On the far right is London Free Press harness writer Jack Parks along with Elliot Cushing, representing the track. (Harness Horse)

Batavia Celebrates 30 Years in 1970

In 1970 Batavia management staged a week long celebration to observe the 30th Anniversary of their opening. On the Friday night of that week each race on the 10 race card was named in honour of a Canadian person who had played a role in the track's growth and prosperity. Those honoured were Cliff Chapman Sr., Harry Fields, "Orangeville Bill" Harvey, Clint Hodgins, Floyd Milton, Joe O'Brien, Russell Miller, Alex Parsons, Lorne Tolhurst and Harold Wellwood. A number of these people were in attendance to be involved in trackside presentations. My parents attended this gala and renewed acquaintances with many people from years past. My father truly loved this spot and always enjoyed visiting there. About six weeks or less after this event, he passed away suddenly and unexpectedly so it was nice that they made that one last trip.

As far back as the 1950's I was a visitor at the Batavia track at least once each summer, occasionally twice. My father had a horse or two racing in Harold Wellwood's stable and I was fortunate enough to make the trip with him and my mother many times. Youngsters under the age of 16 were not allowed in the grandstand so any races I watched would have been viewed over the fence in the backstretch. They had a special small stand for horsemen's children but since I was not a regular I did not feel comfortable sitting there. While my parents attended the races and sat in the grandstand, I devised another plan.

I recall making friends with a backstretch security guard named Charlie. I later found out his full name was Charlie Powers and that he lived at a nearby spot called East Pembroke, N.Y. I am guessing he was retired and did this job as a pastime. He noticed that I was having a bit of difficulty finding a suitable spot to watch the races and offered a suggestion.

He spotted a 40-gallon metal drum sitting nearby that was intended as a refuse container. He turned it over and slid it up to the fence that surrounded the track. From there I watched each and every race from my own personal vantage point. Once a race was over and a groom from "our" barn returned with a horse, I would go back the short distance to the stable and chat until the next race. I also visited with "Charlie" when time permitted.

Back in 1987 I wrote a feature story that appeared in the June issue of TROT Magazine titled Memories Of A Boy. It chronicled much of the early history of Batavia Downs and also featured many of my own personal memories gathered as a youngster visiting this great track over a number of years. A specially designed cartoon accompanied that story and I have included it today. It must not have been too bad of a story as I heard (second hand) that John Hayes Sr. -- who was President of the C.T.A at that time -- even approved of what I had written, so go figure.

I have one further note to add that made my later year visits to "The Downs" even a bit more memorable. I found out that New York State law permitted consumption of "adult beverages" at the age of 18. Now there I thought was a sensible idea and managed to stroll down the street a block or two to a local spot named Gentner's Hotel. It had long been a favourite watering hole for racetrack patrons so I decided to seize the opportunity to sip a couple of Genesee draughts (brewed in nearby Rochester). I believe Gentner's burned down many years ago which was very unfortunate.

This was a great era of racing and although it took place on U.S. soil it really is a part of Canadian harness racing history. I plan to devote a future Rewind to the start up and early history of this great spot known as Batavia Downs which is still in existence.


Harold Wellwood, a regular at Batavia for many years, visits the winner's circle with a mare named Minda Dillon owned by his close friend and my father Carl Smith. Harold was later joined by his nephew Bill who became a popular Downs driver as well. (Authors collection)

Who Is It?

Can you put a correct name on this gentleman who is old enough to be part of the soft hat era? The correct answer will be given during the upcoming week.

May 3, 2019 - 4:21 pmThanks for the great article

Thanks for the great article on Batavia Downs Robert. Like you, I spent many race nights watching from the fence when I was a youngster. my parents and I would travel from Ontario to Batavia in the early 70's to visit my brother who was stabled there. Many memories of the track restaurant across the street and the trailer park where it seemed like everyone from the track lived. I can't imagine how many hours I spent in Ray Cable's blacksmith shop watching men much older than me play Pinochle and listening to stories.
I also remember once in the eighties a great Canadian who was stabled there, Wilf Bourgon had nice horse named "Betcha Win Chaz" who had been racing very well in the preferred. They were lined up behind the gate and there was a recall. Chaz who was as they say "a little strong in the face" thought the race was on and Wilf couldn't get him pulled up. Once around the track they went and Wilf was able to haul on the right line enough to get Chaz to run into the outside fence on the backstretch, which at Batavia is actually the brick wall of one of the barns. That stopped him! The starter asked if they were OK and Wilf yelled "just get the @$#%@% wings open!" No worse for wear, Chaz won going away.
Keep up the good work Robert.

May 1, 2019 - 6:33 pmThis week's "Who Is It?"

This week's "Who Is It?" picture featured a popular driver at Connaught Park from the 1950's named Jimmy Zeron. At the time this photo was taken in 1956 the Ottawa Valley native was among the track's leading drivers.

April 28, 2019 - 11:36 pmLike you Robert, I wasn't

James Milne SAID...

Like you Robert, I wasn't inside the grandstand on my first visit. September 9, 1969 we drove down to bet on Shadydale Chorus, an under achieving brother of Shadydale Hymn and Shadydale Chant. We didn't want the owner to spot us betting so we sent a nervous ringer in to bet while we waited in the parking lot. Murray Waples won with him and we were out of there in time to catch Ron Waples win with Armbro Inspector at Garden City on the way home. I appreciate the history of the 50's and early 60's before I was a fan. Thanks Robert.

April 27, 2019 - 7:44 pmGreat job Robert. I love

Great job Robert. I love this history. Especially the 18 yr old drinking age. LOL. Keep up the great work.


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