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SC Rewind: Meet Of The Century

Published: May 21, 2016 8:46 am ET

Last Comment: May 26, 2016 1:31 pm ET | 3 Comment(s) | Jump to Comments

In this week's edition of Rewind Robert Smith recalls a very famous race meeting from 70 years ago held at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, California. A number of Canadian horsemen were there to record a very significant piece of harness racing history.

An advertisement from The Horseman And Fair World announcing the great 1946 Santa Anita Meeting

Seventy years ago back in 1946, the world was literally putting itself back together again after the long and bitter conflict known as World War II (1939-1945). For six long years the entire universe was in a state of turmoil. It was finally time to set a new course.

The sport of harness racing had been in a virtual holding pattern; many annual race meetings were cancelled as numerous fairgrounds became military installations and training bases. Huge numbers of people were either enlisted in active duty or involved in defense work. The breeding part of the sport had also slowed down tremendously.

Early in 1946, a group of very enterprising gentlemen decided to stage a huge race meeting to kick off the "new era" of harness racing. Working under the banner of "The Western Harness Racing Association" the group chose the picturesque location of Santa Anita Park, located in Southern California for their monumental endeavour. Members of the management team included Walter Smith, Ed Keller (Racing Secretary), Emmett Doherty (President) and Bernard Kearney (General Manager). Opening day was Tuesday, April 16 with races held Tuesdays through Saturday with the exception of Good Friday which would be dark. Closing day was May 18th.

Horsepeople from across North America immediately "fell in love" with the idea and flocked to the West Coast. Nearly everyone who travelled any distance did so by rail and many tales were told of fleeing snowstorms to head to sunny California. It was a place for people of all ages, but trainer George Loomis at age 85 may have been the 'senior' backstretch resident. By opening day almost 800 horses of all skill levels were on the grounds. Following this get-together another five-week harness meeting was scheduled for the Bay Meadows track at San Francisco thus making all this travel worthwhile.

With extremely large purses in excess of $420,000 being offered along with 24 Stakes events, it was easy to see why everyone was so excited. Highlighting the meeting were two of the largest Stake races the sport had ever seen; one for trotters, the other for pacers and each carried a purse of $50,000. Just prior to opening day it was published that 90 entries were received for the trotting event and 105 nominations for the Pace. They were called "The Golden West Pace" and "The Golden West Trot".

On the Sunday prior to opening day an open house was held to familiarize potential fans with the facilities and to offer a glimpse of harness racing on the largest scale it had ever been offered. This was classed as Grand Circuit racing and it was the farthest west the "Roarin' Grand" had ever travelled; first time west of the Mississippi. An estimated 30,000 people attended what was called a "dress rehearsal" that Sunday.

On April 16th the races began with an attendance of 10,000 people and the first race of the five-week meeting was won by a horse named Midnight Volo. Immediately following the opening race, the famed Hollywood actor Mickey Rooney appeared in the winner's circle to present a trophy to driver Glenn Campbell (not the singer). A number of Canadian horsemen were on hand for the start up, and early on the second day of racing a mare named Merry England became the first winner from this side of the border. She was part of a two-horse stable belonging to Dr. J.S. Ferguson of Chatham, Ont., trained and driven by Wilbur Apthorp of Charing Cross. The purse for her winning effort was $2,500, an amount that would probably equal several months of racing at the old Ontario fairs.

Blue Again, the speedy Canadian horse who won the big $50,000 Pace, led all money winners at the meeting for owner Warren Leatherdale of Windsor, Ont. This horse and his journey to the far away West Coast is an amazing story. His owner accompanied by his trainer Will Fraser of Ridgetown, Ont., who at that time was advanced in years, drove a car towing a small one horse trailer all across the U.S. The journey took several days and along the way they "bunked" in with various farmers and ranchers who boarded the men and stabled the horse.

It was a pretty profitable trip as the $21,650 that Blue Again earned as the top money winning horse would be worth approximately $264,387 in today's dollars. To put this in some perspective, at that time a 100-acre farm could be purchased for around $10,000 back where Mr. Leatherdale lived.

A rather tragic turn of fate occurred not too long before the time that Mr. Leatherdale had to choose a driver. Jimmy Cruise, a young horseman from Kentucky, was at Santa Anita to drive a horse named Lusty B, one of the favourites in the pacing headliner. The horse was owned by Earl Daugherty, Cruise's future father-in-law. Unfortunately the horse broke a bone and had to be destroyed. This left the young reinsman available for the ride behind Blue Again.

It was a busy week for Cruise as he and his fiance Joan Daugherty were married just a few days prior to his winning drive. His bank account swelled dramatically as the Western Harness Group gave the happy couple a cheque for $500. This along with a $400 bonus from owner Leatherdale (who was known to be notoriously frugal) gave the couple a nice nest egg to start their marriage. I was fortunate enough to meet Mr. Cruise many years ago at Ben White Raceway in Florida and reminisce with him about this historic race.

Here are the names of the people and horses as recorded from left to right: J. Guyette with Moonbeam 2:09 1/2, Dean Dempsey (Carberry, Man.), Wilbur Apthorpe (Chatham, Ont.), J.J. Brady, Harry Elliot, J. MacMillan, Wm. Fraser (Ridgetown, Ont.), Herve LaChappelle, Omar. St. Amand, Denis LaRochelle, Honorat LaRochelle, Phil Dussault, Chas. Trimble, Ted Ketcham (Track Sup't.) Geo. Tracey (Regina, Sask.), and Albert Thibault with the horse Adage 2:02.

One person who recalls pretty much every detail of this historic race meet is Denis Larochelle, a well-known Quebec horseman who accompanied his father Honorat to Santa Anita way back then. A few years ago I displayed a picture (shown above) that contained many of the Canadian horsemen who were there. A portion of Mr. Larochelle's comments from then are shown below.

"The race office called and arranged that all Canadians on the track would meet for the picture. I was eight years old when this was taken in front of my father's barn. Back home all of the horses were put in palace cars that were attached to a passenger train and sent to California and the horse's trips were paid. It took eight days to arrive in Hollywood Park. My father had a horse named Guy H who was a 2:00 horse and raced against Adios and Kings Counsel. There are four grooms in the picture, the one on the right with Adage is Albert Thibault; he always took care of the best horses around working for such stables as Paul Larente, Phil Dussault and Honorat Larochelle (my father). Phil Dussault was a top trainer and driver winning the International with Champ Volo. The man in the white hat is Omar St. Amand, from our stable. Herve Lachapple took care of Guy H and later owned a restaurant named Quinella next to Richelieu Park. Ed Keller was a great promoter and was responsible for all these people being there."

At the conclusion of the historic meeting an announcement was published by the Association that the entire endeavour was a success in every aspect, finishing "in the black" the statement read. In total, 300,926 people attended the month long meeting with the closing day crowd the largest counted at 22,156 (a world record). The mutuel handle was $11,435,395 with a top single day handle of $883,469 on the final afternoon, also a world record. The group of Canadian horsepeople who joined in this venture can take great pride in the role they played.

Picture Gallery

Blue Again Wins $50,000 Golden West Pace: On closing day of the famous Santa Anita "Meeting Of The Century" the Canadian-owned horse Blue Again made racing history as he won the Golden West Pace driven by Jimmy Cruise. Mr. Leatherdale the owner is at the front of the group. Trainer Will Fraser is partially obscured standing at the horse's head. [Harness Horse]


Blue Again and driver Jimmy Cruise lead a field of 20 to the wire in winning the $50,000 Golden West Pace at Santa Anita. The time of 2:32 1/2 for the longer distance of 1-1/4 miles set a new world's record. Blue Again was owned by a Canadian R.W. Leatherdale who at the time resided in Windsor, Ont. The longshot paid $28.00 for a two dollar win ticket. [Harness Horse]


A full parking lot as Santa Anita opened on Christmas Day 1934 to a crowd of 30,777 people who watched an afternoon of thoroughbred racing. Opening day crowds got bigger and bigger as time went on. With its backdrop of the San Gabriel Mountains, it is considered by many the world's most beautiful race track.


Ed Keller, Race Secretary (left) and Walter Smith map out strategy at Santa Anita in this 1946 photo.


Shown here are three prominent California horse owners who started as potato farmers and went on to play a prominent role in the years that followed this first meeting. From left is Wm. Lachenmaier, Bob Neuman and Sol Camp. The great Canadian Joe O'Brien worked for Mr. Camp for many years (California Harness Horsemen's Assoc.)

May 26, 2016 - 1:31 pmNote to Garth - Twenty Four

Note to Garth - Twenty Four yes 24 ! Trotters went to the post for the Golden West Trot for $50,000 if you think 20 pacers was a big field . The winner was the mare Kaola who went on to be the leading money winning trotter at the famous meeting with $23,825 banked .Apparently they didn't believe in eliminations in those days .

May 25, 2016 - 8:53 amI can't imagine 20 horses in

Garth Gordon SAID...

I can't imagine 20 horses in the same race - 10 on the gate and 10 trailing. I wonder what the catch drivers, owners, trainers would have to say about that today.

May 21, 2016 - 9:13 amGreat article. Very

Great article. Very interesting. Essex and Kent County can be very proud of the long list of Great horses and owners that have resided here.

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