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SC Rewind: Small Town Tracks

Published: May 23, 2015 9:24 am ET

Last Comment: May 28, 2015 9:28 pm ET | 11 Comment(s) | Jump to Comments

In this week's edition of Rewind Robert Smith takes a rather nostalgic look at the era of small town racing, a sort of combination history and geography session.

As recently as 50 or 60 years ago, the sport of harness racing still played itself out at small towns all across the land. If there had been Google Earth or its equivalent back then, there would have been concern of aliens at work with those strange circles appearing in so many communities. At the end of this piece I have listed over 250 locations across Canada where tracks once existed and I am sure there were many more. I believe that some of the original tracks trace their history back to the mid 1800's and many have played host to much of the community's history.


A typical scene from yesteryear small town harness racing. This photo of a large crowd was taken at Tillsonburg, Ont. July 18, 1951 [LFP Photo]

In those days people often dressed up for a day at the races. They arrived early and stayed until the last heat was decided and thoroughly enjoyed it all.

Race days at these small venues were often very special. Turf Clubs or other such organizations were formed to plan and oversee the races and much work and preparation went into making a good day of racing. Virtually all of these people were volunteers, and most were horse lovers and staunch supporters of everything to do with the sport. Many tracks saw action only at fair time which was usually from mid August until about Thanksgiving weekend.


Levi "Jiggs" McFadden, a veteran of the one-day meet era, accepts congratulations at Stratford in this 1955 photo. He was a winner several times that afternoon. He is pictured here with feature winner Richard Hal D and an unidentified presenter. [LFP Photo]

Certain towns were known for their spot on the calendar and although it was not set in stone, they had "dibs" on that date -- probably coincidental with a holiday weekend. The season opened on the 24th of May and went for about five months. Places like Strathroy and Orangeville raced on July 1, so no one in the area scheduled on that day. It was not unusual to have every seat in the grandstand filled and standing room only in the infield.

The small town track may have only been in official use one or two days a year, but their usefulness extended far beyond. In the small Town where I was born and raised a track once existed as part of the lovely fairgrounds where the annual fall fair has been held since 1854. The staging of harness races over the track I believe ceased in the late 1930's but the track remained for quite some time after. Today it remains but only to those like me who remember where it once was. It is just a wide path in spots and part of the entrance in another. Each time I attend the fair I can visualize in my mind how it once was, and even the passage of time has not erased the memory of riding around it in a cutter with my father's trainer.

Being adjacent to the High School grounds we used it for running, as in those days schools seldom had a decent track. It also had other uses. When my mother decided that she wanted to learn to drive a car, something she had not done in her earlier years, it found another use. By then in her late 30's or so, she turned to a neighbour lady to assist in her learning as my father wasn't the most patient creature on the face of the earth. Off they went for daily training sessions, complete with a stick shift and learning to use the clutch. What better place with no other motorists to confuse an otherwise difficult task?

Slowly but surely over the years and decades, our once quaint and useful tracks have disappeared one by one. Many have been consumed by urban sprawl, replaced by subdivisions or commercial ventures. Thankfully some have been converted into making the town park larger. The old wooden grandstands that were part of the facilities were replaced in the earlier years but eventually fell prey to neglect, decline and decay. Some were even consumed by fire and never replaced. A precious few remain as do a few old photographs and countless old memories.


A view of the track at Ridgetown, Ont. the scene of many race days. [Courtesy of Bev Snoblen]

Time passes. Things change.

If you have a story about some small town track memory or any recollections about this era I would encourage you to share it. Also if I have missed a track in my unofficial list it can be added.


A view of the New Hamburg Grandstand which was the scene of countless exciting race meetings (taken in 2005). After standing for many years as a reminder of its glory days, it unfortunately fell victim to an arsonist a few years ago and was completely destroyed. A new structure replaced it in 2009 and a narrow track still exists. (Courtesy of Terry Mullen)

 


A bevy of old race programs or score cards as they were called from various locations. Local businesses and individuals purchased a spot in the program to help finance the race day.

 


Ads for race days at the small venues were carried in the Canadian Sportsman. These notices invited fans and also advised horse owners of upcoming events including purse structures.

For discussion purposes I have assembled a list of locations where tracks existed in the 1950's. This is not to say there were not many more, it is just the best I could do. (In alphabetical order)

Ontario (146): Alfred, Alvinston, Ancaster, Apsley, Arnprior, Arthur, Avonmore, Aylmer, Azilda, Barrie, Beachburg, Beamsville, Beaverton, Beeton, Belleville, Binbrook, Blackstock, Blyth, Bothwell, Bracebridge, Brampton, Brighton, Brooklin, Brussels, Burford, Burks Falls, Caledon, Caledonia, Campbellford, Cardinal, Centreville, Chesterville, Clinton, Cobden, Cobourg, Coe Hill, Coldwater, Collingwood, Curran, Delta, Desoronto, Drayton, Dresden, Dundalk, Dungannon, Durham, Elmira, Elmvale, Emo, Exeter, Fergus, Forest, Gananoque, Georgetown, Glencoe, Goderich, Gore Bay, Grand Valley, Hanover, Ilderton, Ingersoll, Iroquois, Kemptville, Kincardine, Kingston, Lakefield, Lansdowne, Leamington, Lindsay, Listowel, Lombardy, London, Madoc, Manitowaning, Maramora, Markdale, Markham, Meaford, Melbourne, Merrickville, Milton, Milverton, Mitchell, Mohawk, Napanee, New Hamburg, Newington, Norwood, Odessa, Ohsweken, Oneida, Orangeville, Oro, Orono, Orr Lake, Oshawa, Owen Sound, Paisley, Palmerston, Paris, Parkhill, Penetang, Perth, Peterborough, Petrolia, Picton, Port Elgin, Port Hope, Port Perry, Renfrew, Richmond, Ridgetown, Rodney, Roseneath, St. Marys, Sault Ste. Marie, Schomberg, Seaforth, Shannonville, Shedden, Shelburne, Simcoe, Smithville, South Mountain, Spencerville, Stirling, Stratford, Strathroy, Sunderland, Sutton, Tara, Teeswater, Thorndale, Tillsonburg, Timmins, Tiverton, Tweed, Uxbridge, Wallacetown, Warkworth, Wasaga Beach, Wiarton, Williamsburg, Winchester, Woodbridge, Woodstock.

Quebec (35): Ayers Cliff, Bedford, Brome, Coaticook, Cookshire, Gatineau Pointe, Granby, Hull, Huntingdon, Jonquiere, Lachute, La Prairie, LaSarre, Malartic, Maniwaki, Ormstown, Quebec City, Quyon, Richmond, Rigaud, Rimouski, Sorel, St. Alexandre, St. Bruno, St. Hyacinthe, St. Jerome, St. John, St. Rose, Shawinigan Falls, Shawville, Sherbrooke, Three Rivers, Valleyfield, Waterloo, Wotton.

Manitoba (16): Brandon, Carberry, Carman, Dauphin, Deloraine, Glenboro, Holland, McCreary, Minnedosa, Neepawa, Pilot Mound, Portage La Prairie, Russell, Saint Vital, Swan River, Virden.

Saskatchewan (34): Beechy, Brock, Eston, Cabri, Fort Qu'appelle, Gravelbourg, Gull Lake, Humboldt, Indian Head, Kerrobert, Kindersley, Lloydminster, Lombardy, Maidstone, Melfort, Naicam, Nipawin, Nokomis, North Battleford, Pennant, Ponteix, Prince Albert, Regina, Rosetown, Semans, Spiritwood, Stoughton, Swift Current, Tisdale, Unity, Weyburn, Wilkie, Wolseley, Yorkton.

Nova Scotia (8): Bridgewater, Halifax, Inverness, Middleton, North Sydney, Sydney, Truro, Windsor.

New Brunswick (8): Buctouche, Chatham, Dieppe, Fredericton, Port Elgin, St. Anthony, Saint John, Woodstock

P.E.I. (5): Charlottetown, Covehead, Montague, Summerside, Vernon.

Alberta (3): Hanna, High River, Lethbridge,

British Columbia (1): Ladner

Newfoundland: No tracks listed.

May 28, 2015 - 9:28 pmWell done, Robert! Thanks

Adam Mauntah SAID...

Well done, Robert! Thanks for this well-researched look at this country's small town tracks. I have seen races over a few of them, and I have driven by others well after their racing days were over and tried to imagine what they would have been like today. I was at the last card of racing at the old Ancaster fairgrounds in 2008, I have had the pleasure of announcing at Forest and Wallacetown, and I have attended the races at a few of the other tracks. I remember attending the Lansdowne Fair in 2002, and listening to an announcer who was clearly frustrated by the fact that his view was obstructed by the midway, which was right in the infield! As for tracks that I saw after racing had long gone, I recall going to the Mennonite Relief Sale in New Hamburg for a few years in the 1990s, when I lived in the Toronto area. It was always fun to picture what it must have been like when the Waterloo Region oval was one of racing's hotbeds. In more recent years, I spent a brief stint in Sudbury before moving to Ottawa, and regularly returned to Northern Ontario after that to visit friends. On one of those visits, I drove around Manitoulin Island and was surprised to see the Manitowaning oval, complete with a sign with a horse on it and the name "Manitowaning Raceway". I had not realized, before I read this article, how much of a presence fair racing had throughout Northern Ontario, even in the relatively sparse terrain of Manitoulin Island. Horses - and in particular, harness racing at fairs - were more a part of Canada's agricultural heritage than some of us have really taken the time to understand and reflect on. Thank you, Robert, for this thorough historic and geographic survey of harness racing as it was in so many places in days gone by.

May 27, 2015 - 7:58 amThere was also a track in

There was also a track in Shediac NB. there was a circuit where they raced sunday afternoons 1 week at Buctouche next at Shediac then St. Anthony

May 25, 2015 - 12:31 pmThey brought racing back to

They brought racing back to Ormstown after a 10 years absence. Fair racing is great for the sport.

May 23, 2015 - 5:33 pmMarkham Fair is one track

Sheldon Rose SAID...

Markham Fair is one track that would be easy to revitalize. It has a good track that still exists. It has good stabling. And also good grandstand seating. You wouldn't have to attract fans as 60,000 people attend the fair. The advantage is that you'd be bringing the horses to the people. And for a fair crowd, the betting on the horses is very popular.

May 23, 2015 - 4:58 pmThanks, Robert, for this fine

Thanks, Robert, for this fine article which has brought back to me many great memories of the “Good Old Days” and the fun times we had racing at the real “Grass Roots” and foundation of the industry. Just for fun I set out to make a list of all the local small town tracks on Robert's list at which I either drove or raced horses and here's what I can remember _
Here's my list of Fairs or “One-Day-Meets” in Ontario at which I drove--
Ancaster, Barrie, Beamsville, Beaverton, Belleville, Binbrook, Brooklin, Burford, Caledonia, Campbellford, Coe Hill, Elmira, Fergus, Hanover, Kingston, Lindsay, Listowel, Madoc, Marmora, Markham, New Hamburg, Ohsweken, Orangeville, Orono, Oshawa, Paris, Peterborough, Picton, Port Hope, Port Perry, Roseneath, Schomberg, Shannonville, Simcoe, Smithville, Stirling, Sunderland, Sutton, Tweed, Woodbridge, Woodstock.
I also drove at Mount Forest and Welland which is missing from Robert's list.
I made my first lifetime drive at Port Hope where I finished a glorious and well beaten last with the first horse I owned “Mildred Chips”
I also raced horses using other drivers at Napanee and Tillsonburg plus Orillia which is also missing from Robert's list.
One of the highlights of racing at the small town fairs was always the great dining hall run by one of the local churches, charitable organizations or maybe the Woman's Institute which served up real home style farm type meals at reasonable prices.
Quite often the racing itself was a bit of an adventure over, to put it mildly, far less than ideal race tracks and you never really knew what the next surprise might be, like farm animals suddenly popping up on the track, but it sure was fun and usually the day ended with a bit of a party!

May 23, 2015 - 2:29 pmThe following note was

The following note was received from Dr. Glen Brown

There were regular race meets at New Liskeard, Earlton in Northern Ontario. Also on this circuit were Rouyn (sp?) and Ville Marie in Northern Quebec.
I was at all of these meets in the '40's where my father raced regularly.
Great story.

May 23, 2015 - 2:26 pmSo many of these fair tracks

norm files SAID...

So many of these fair tracks in Ontario are still there and could still be usable today with little work, and I dont really understand why the fair circuit hasnt been revitalized to help promote the industry, as that was the first exposure to harness racing by many.
New Hamburg raced in 2000 and 2001 and were very well attended and handled/ One track that is missing from this list was Welland. In the late 70's and early 80's they had a very good program, racing Sundays through the month of June and 2 days during the Niagara Region Exhibition.

May 23, 2015 - 12:21 pmI believe there were track in

I believe there were track in St. Stepeen, Sussex, and Edmunston, N.B.

May 23, 2015 - 11:34 amRick Armstrong My

Rick Armstrong

My grandfather talked about and raced at, st stephen, sussex, Edmunston, Chatham, and Cambellton in New Brunswick. Pugwash, Amherst, Glace bay, and New Glasgow in Nova Scotia just a few to add to your list.

May 23, 2015 - 10:50 amRobert, Lots of memories

Robert,
Lots of memories here.
When I was younger, many fall Saturdays were spent going to the fair and watching races: Arnprior, Renfrew, Richmond, Perth, South Mountain and Shawville and Quyon on the Quebec side.
Some good horse and drivers learned some of their best lessons on those fall days.
Good racing, good crowds, interesting food - it made for many great days in my childhood.
Thanks,
Mark McLennan, Woodstock

May 23, 2015 - 9:50 amRobert, your listing of

Robert, your listing of tracks brought back some very fond memories. As a young lad, I spent many a fair weekend watching horse races. While my friends were off to the midway, I couldn't wait to get to the grandstand and get a spot right at the wire. As I still do today, I loved to watch the horses warm up and then the thrill of the race. Places like Teeswater, Listowel and New Hamburg come to mind. I also seem to remember going to races at Tiverton and maybe even Kincardine. Later, as a teenager, I had the privilege of announcing races at Forest and Exeter Fall Fairs. It's worth noting that the tracks in Blyth, Ilderton and Dundalk were all used for racing ponies in the 1970's. It makes me sad to think of tracks like Orangeville and Elmira, both a significant part of my misspent youth, now without even a marker to indicate where they once were.


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