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SC Rewind: London's 60th Anniversary

Published: May 15, 2021 11:46 am ET

Last Comment: May 21, 2021 6:50 am ET | 9 Comment(s) | Jump to Comments

In this week's edition of Rewind Robert Smith recalls a very important date in the history of Canadian harness racing. It was 60 years ago that nighttime racing finally came to the Province of Ontario. On the evening of May 17, 1961 with a post time of 8:00 p.m., it all happened at Western Fair Raceway in London, Ontario. A few recollections of the times and some old photographs help to recall this very special moment in our sport's history.

(Photo by Claus Andersen courtesy of Canadian Sportsman)

For many years, in fact for several decades, everyone involved with harness racing in Ontario longed for racing under the lights to make its way to the Province. It seemed like every other area where the sport was conducted it had already arrived. In 1940 nighttime racing debuted at two New York State tracks; first at Roosevelt and a short time later that fall at Batavia. The next year Saratoga joined in as the first new track dedicated to harness racing under the arclights. In the Province of Quebec, racing under the lights had been around since the 1940's as well. At every spot where it was tried success soon followed. It seemed the fate of Ontarians was to wait forever.

A view of harness racing at the London track during the Western Fair week long before night racing began in 1961. A packed infield shows how popular harness racing was back then.

The following poem appeared in the London Free Press as part of a column written by Sports editor Jack Parks who often wrote about the happenings in harness racing under the heading Sport Sparkz.

T’was the night before Christmas; the office was quiet.
T’was a welcome relief from the everyday riot.
Gone were the horse players, promoters and plugs
Oh my it was peaceful without all those lugs.
We started to doze when we heard such a clatter
We went to the window to see what’s the matter.

High up in the sky we saw a great sight,
There was Claus and eight pacers - racing at night.
We knew this was wrong for the harness race guys
Must close up their shop when the stars light the skies.
The well-loaded sulky whisked into the room.
Friend Claus looked at us and said: “Why all this gloom?”

“Tell Parsons and Pinkney and Herbert and Fleet
That night racing plans are almost complete.”

My thanks to Rewind follower Dick White for supplying this vintage piece

Finally on the evening of Wednesday, May 17, 1961 the long awaited time arrived. The "Official" sign was posted at London's Western Fair track announcing that the time for racing under the lights was about to happen. In the fall of 1960, undoubtedly in preparation for the coming of night racing and more modern conditions, a milestone race meeting was held at that year's edition of the famous Western Fair. Each afternoon of the three-day meeting was well-attended, with excellent competition on display. For the first time in the Fair's long history, pari-mutuel wagering was introduced, replacing the old "book" method of betting which had existed forever.

A write up from the Sportsman in 1961 detailed the new lighting system being installed for night racing. The total cost of $40,000 was considered quite a sizable investment at the time but a necessary one.

On opening night at London's Western Fair Raceway just under 3,000 fans were on hand to welcome night harness racing to Ontario. They pushed $46,626 through the windows as fans and mutuel clerks adjusted to the new system. The four-race, eight-heat card attracted a total of just 29 starters and everything went off basically without a hitch. Apparently the paddock judge had a bit of a problem getting the horses out on time and in order but that was rectified by veteran starter Art Whitesell who soon took charge. A number of dignitaries were on hand including Mr. Hugh Proudfoot of Fort Coulonge Quebec, the current President of the C.T A. It was reported that fans from as far away as 200 miles made the journey to become part of an important piece of history.

London's very first race was a Class "D-1" pace for a purse of $400 and drew eight entrants with seven facing starter Art Whitesell as Lee Johnston was a scratch. Almost as if scripted, the inaugural dash was won by a three-year-old Alpha Hal filly named Adieu Herbert, owned, trained and driven by a youthful 62-year-old legend named Bill Herbert of London. Unfortunately the Herbert entry was scratched from the second heat and thus denied a possible two-heat victory. Based on the best summary of 2-1, Garfield Ritchie and his six-year-old Big Gun mare Marlene R etched their names in the record books as the winner of the first race held under the lights in Ontario. The "show" was underway.

Summary of WFR Opening Night First Race:
D-1 Pace - Two One-Mile Heats - Purse $400

Horse - Driver - 1st Dash - 2nd Dash

Adieu Herbert - (Wm. Herbert) - 1 - Scratch
Marlene R. - (Garfield Ritchie) - 2 - 1
Twinkles Danny - (Don Larkin) - 3 - 2
Favonian Melody - (Dunc Barnes) - 4 - 3
Rose Herbert - (Ross Blackman) - 5 - 4
Dorothy O - (Ken Bogart) - 6 - 5
Oxford Windy - (John Anscombe) - D. N. F. - Scratch
Lee Johnston - Scratch - Scratch

Times: 2:13.2; 2:18.2

A clipping from The Canadian Sportsman described the start of night time racing at London

The following is a list of winning drivers who competed during the six-week Spring meet from May 17 through June 24, 1961. Due to a lack of data I know there were several more who drove in races, but did not win therefore may not be listed. This list contains drivers who won at least one race during the inaugural. I have also added a few names who I know were early year participants but were statistically excluded. If anyone wishes to add a name please do so as I would not like to see anyone left out. The names are listed in alphabetical order.

Johnny Atmore, Dunc Barnes, Norm Bayne, Floyd Belore, Andy Bell, Geo. Bennett, Ross Blackman, Ken Bogart, Lyle Bogart, Don Campbell, Duncan Campbell, Gary Campbell, Jack Campbell, Ray Campbell, Johnny Chapman -*, Cecil Coke, Wes Coke, Allan Colquhoun, Don Corbett, Elmer Cunningham, Ellis Dell, Dale Dufty, Keith Feagan, Ron Feagan, Harvey Fleet, Wick Fraser, Ray Freer, Bud Fritz, Elmer Fritz, Dr. Gordon Gilbertson, Henry Gorski, Fred Goudreau, Wilf Guise, Bill Habkirk, Irwin Hamilton, Wm. (Ancaster Bill) Harvey, Jack Herbert, Wm. Herbert, Wm. Hicks, Fred Hill, Clint Hodgins -*, Joe Hodgins -*, Almer Holmes, Dr. Houze, Stan Hughes, Ted Hughes, Wm. James, Gerry Johnston, Lorne Johnston, Ross Johnston, Tom Keck, Ken Kerr, Scotty Kerr, Gordon Kingston, Gord Kitchen, Jack Kopas, Don Larkin, Gordon Lawrence, Wm. Lawrence, John Lester, Marcel L'Heureux, Clarence Lockhart, Cecil Loney, Vic Lutman, S. MacMillan, Bert Madill, Wm. Madill, Mike Marchuk, Cecil McCallum, Morrie McDonald -*, Jiggs McFadden, Hugh McLean, Don McNutt, Neil McRann, Jack Mehlenbacher, Marshall Moore, Harold North, Neil Pringle, Jack Reid, John Redpath, Garfield Ritchie, Fred Roloson, Bob Sanford, Stew Simpson, Allan Tait, Glen Tiffin, Jack Turner, Lloyd Turvey, Murray Waples, Brian Webster, Harold Wellwood -*, Stan Williams, Les Wright, Tom Yearly, Clarence Young, Herb Young.

* - These six drivers appeared as special guests of the Raceway to compete in the Ken MacDonald Memorial Three-Year-Old Invitational.

Special Celebration Held For 50th Anniversary - 2011

On May 17, 2011 the management of London's Western Fair Raceway hosted a special evening to commemorate and celebrate their Golden anniversary. It was a great evening of fellowship, reminiscing and visiting among many horse people who had been associated with the London track dating back many years. I was honoured to be in attendance along with my wife Linda and we were seated with a very special couple, Florence and Jack Campbell as well as members of the Belore family.

The following is a short list of miscellaneous happenings over the years and decades at London:

  • 1961 - Bill Herbert wins first race under the lights on opening night with Adieu Herbert

  • 1961 - Penny Johnston and driver Gary Campbell posted the fastest mile of the inaugural meeting in 2:05

  • 1972 - The first ever Labatts Pace is won by Key Ones Uno driven by Jack Kopas - Purse $7,500

  • 1972 - John Campbell wins his first ever race driving Noble Will (See below for Trivia Question)

  • 1975 - Track holds first afternoon/evening double header live card

  • 1975 - Derbys Gent wins Labatts Pace and scores track's first 2:00 mile

  • with John Campbell in the sulky

  • 1976 -1978 - Jambo Dancer wins three straight editions of the Labatts Pace, all for trainer Kent Baker

  • 1978 - Trevor Ritchie wins the first race of his career as a driver

  • 1981 - Lime Time (Doug Brown) sets track and Canadian half mile track record of 1:56.2

  • 1983 - Triple S carried Doug Brown to his third consecutive Labatts triumph

  • 1983 - On Nov. 5th Harry Eisen retired and was recognized for his long and meritorious service to the racing industry

  • 1990 - Evan McGugan retires and Hugh Mitchell is hired as track's first full time Raceway Manager

  • 1991 - Jamie Martin takes over as Raceway Manager when Mitchell is promoted

  • 1994 - Trainer Rick Fife scores third Labatts/Molsons victory with Such Sparkle (Dave Wall)

  • 2005 - Ponder wins Molson Pace to give trainer Bob McIntosh three victories in this annual race

Summary - The London track has maintained its sterling reputation as a first class racing centre throughout its entire existence. It has been blessed to have the services of many dedicated people who have served in management roles down through the years. The track has always been known for its hospitality and friendliness toward its spectators and its backstretch participants. It is unfortunate that the current pandemic conditions will prevent the track from properly celebrating this momentous occasion.

Quote For The Week: Many years ago a reporter approached Babe Ruth and said "There's something wrong here; you're making more money than the President of the United States." Ruth replied, "Yes but don't forget, I had a better year last year than he did."

Who Is It? #1

Can you identify this gentleman who was associated with the London track from its very beginning?

Who Is It? #2

Who is this gentleman who occupies a special place in WFR history?

Who Is It? #3

These fine fellows were all part of London's early years. Can you name them?

Western Fair Trivia Question: When 17-year-old John Campbell won his very first race back in 1972 at London (Wow, that's almost 50 years ago!) another driver bearing the same initials was also in that race and helped to witness this memorable victory. Clue - he is still with us. Can you name him?

May 21, 2021 - 6:50 amThis week's pictures and

This week's pictures and trivia question again failed to stump the experts.
Who is it #1 was Evan McGugan, a leader of the original team that launched night time racing at London. Mr. McGugan passed away on May 12 just about the time this edition of Rewind was going to press. I extend my condolences to his family.
#2 was long time race secretary Terry Provost.
Picture #3 captured three well known drivers of the past from left, Levi "Jiggs" McFadden, Stan Williams and Jack Kopas.
The answer to the trivia question was correctly answered by Jack Darling who said Joe Carr. Many will remember that racing scribe Harry Eisen loved to write about Joe and his "day job" which was a teacher.

May 16, 2021 - 9:43 amMy trivia guess is Jim Coke.

My trivia guess is Jim Coke. I remember him selling his good horse, Mothers Boy, to John Campbell shortly after the Meadowlands opened.

May 16, 2021 - 7:54 amThe 3 drivers would be Levi

Rick North SAID...

The 3 drivers would be Levi Mcfadden, Stan Williams, Jack Kopas, I have many fond memories of the early days in London. Thanks Robert

May 15, 2021 - 10:31 pm#1 Evan McGugan, #2 Terry

Johnny Kish SAID...

#1 Evan McGugan, #2 Terry Provost, #3 Levi McFadden on the left and not sure of the other 2 gentlemen

May 15, 2021 - 9:41 pm# is former general manager

John Yake SAID...

# is former general manager Evan McGugan.
#2 is former race secretary Terry Provost.
The 3 drivers would be Levi McFadden, Stan Williams and Jack Kopas.
Lots of great memories!

May 15, 2021 - 6:19 pmI will take a stab at the

Jack Darling SAID...

I will take a stab at the trivia question with a name from that era. Joe Carr

May 15, 2021 - 2:27 pm1. Evan Mcgugan High profile

Jack Darling SAID...

1. Evan Mcgugan High profile GM at Western Fair and Raceway for over 30 yrs. 2. Terry Provost Outstanding Race Secretary at WFR in the 70's 3.Levi McFadden, Stan Williams, Jack Kopas

May 15, 2021 - 1:54 pm#1 Stan Bergstein #3 Jiggs

#1 Stan Bergstein #3 Jiggs Mcfadden on the left not sure about the driver in the middle maybe Stan Williams. The driver on the right is Jack Kopas. Trivia question the other driver with same initials is Jack Campbell.

May 15, 2021 - 1:36 pmIn the third photo is Jiggs

kent benson SAID...

In the third photo is Jiggs Mcfadden and Jack Kopas

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