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SC Rewind: Dominion Day Racing

Published: June 25, 2016 9:07 am ET

Last Comment: June 27, 2016 3:58 pm ET | 4 Comment(s) | Jump to Comments

In this week's Rewind as Canada Day approaches, Robert Smith recalls when harness racing on Dominion Day as the July first National holiday was formerly known, was a major happening. His recollections include a number of old photographs and touch down on many locales across the land where race days were held.

This photo taken at Strathroy, Ont., on a July 1 race day many years ago shows the huge crowd on hand as many wait to place their wagers. The old judge's stand is visible down the track. (L.F.P. photo, D.B. Weldon collection)

At one time racing on Dominion Day (July 1st) was one of the biggest race days of the year across Canada, often the best attended in some localities. Many small towns had a 'claim' on the day and no one else violated their time slot by scheduling on the same date. A few really well-organized spots such as Strathroy, Ont., staged a huge day that not only included harness racing but also a number of other sporting contests. Track and Field events and baseball games were held on the day as well, and thousands were in attendance. It was often a time when families dressed up, packed a picnic lunch and headed to the track for a day of fun.

As a matter of interest, in 1982 the designation Dominion Day was changed to Canada Day.

Shown below are a number of old newspaper summaries and short stories related to Dominion Day harness races from years gone by.

Dunnville. Ont. - 1867

While several Upper Canada communities were celebrating Confederation in their own way on July 1, 1867, spectators turned out in numbers to watch the exciting harness race between BLACK BESS and JENNY LIND. (Can. Sportsman)
Editor's note - If anyone in the reading audience was there can you please report in on who won!

1931 - Penatanguishene, Ont.

July 1, 1931 - A full day of racing was enjoyed here today as Mr. J.T. Payette presented the annual Dominion Day card. In each heat the horses were paraded to the post by a young boy riding a pony. Despite being just seven years of age, the youngster named Keith Waples was quite at ease and did a remarkable job. He is reportedly very interested in the harness sport and plans to become more involved as soon as he is of age.

Summerside, P.E.I.

Races were held annually on Dominion Day at this venerable spot for decades. Many great horsemen who hailed from this region made this a priority stop on the yearly racing calendar. Numerous names are linked with race days here undoubtedly headed by the great horseman George Callbeck.

​P.E.I horseman George Callbeck in a 1951 photo (P.E.I. Sports HOF)

from July 12, 1927 Trotter and Pacer:

Mrs. O. B. Sheppard of Toronto, widow of the late president of the Canadian National Trotting and Pacing Association, donated a silver tea service to the horse making the fastest time at the Dominion Day races at Newmarket, Ont., in memory of her husband. Rose Grattan was the winner. Mrs. Sheppard plans to make this memorial an annual event.

from July 11, 1929 Trotter and Pacer and NS:

Horses racing under the colors of Collie McKenzie of Truro, N.S., cleaned the platter at Moncton, N.B., on Dominion Day. Captain Mac, Catherine Claude and Worthy J., all owned by the Maritime horseman and driven by Johnny Conroy, were winners of their respective events.

from July 2, 1904 issue of St. John Daily Sun:

Harness races were the only holiday attraction yesterday at Spring Hill Mines, N.S., and passed off pleasantly in front of a large crowd. Two races were called and each was splendidly contested and as a speed competition they could not be excelled. The mare Helen R. took the first heat of the Free For All but was beaten out in the next three heats by Simassie. The latter is said to have been trained down to a finer point for the track than Helen R at the present time. Nevertheless, it was voted by all a beautiful race with runner up Tonita F. also gaining many admirers.

Note - This is the home of noted horseman Wm. "Magic" O'Donnell but just a bit before his time. I love the way they wrote back then.

Orangeville, Ont. - July 1, 1936

Dr. Riddell's famous First of July race day was again a huge success with a large contingent of horses in competition. The featured Three-Year-Old Pace was won by a gelding named Lee Counterpart from the barn of Joseph Saint of Wallaceburg, Ont. In the bike was the young reinsman Clint Hodgins. His appearance was somewhat unexpected as he was sporting a cast on his arm as a result of an earlier racing accident. A special sling and attachment to the lines were made to accommodate his 'handicap' which did not seem to bother him. Purse for the race was $500 and Hon. Earl Rowe was on hand to join Dr. Riddell in the trophy presentation made to Fred Saint, the owner's son and trainer.
This race day was known throughout the Province and beyond. Legend has it that the good Doctor (who was a vet) always put up the purse money in advance from his own pocket to assure the horsemen that they would be paid regardless of the attendance.

Left-Right: Clint Hodgins, Dr. Riddell, Hon. Earl Rowe and owner's son Fred Saint (file photo)

Virden, Manitoba - June 30, 1951

With July 1 falling on a Sunday, the annual race day was moved ahead and a large crowd gathered to witness the Dominion Day races which consisted of a total of 14 heats. On hand to start the races using his recent model (Packard?) mobile starting gate was Andy Foster of High River, Alberta . His efficient starting helped move the program along quickly and drew the praise of all in attendance. A total of $1,400 was offered in purse money as all races consisted of three heats with the exception of the two-year-olds who went just two trips. The winners came from far and wide with the Provinces of Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan represented as well as horses from North Dakota and Montana. The Free For All went to Azoff Guy, who won the first two heats for owner Arthur Decorte of Deloraine, Man. and driver James W. Kealey but unfortunately they did not finish in the final heat. The only three-heat winner was Dale Riggs for J.K. Tutt of Roleau, Sask. in the Class 20 Pace.

An early starting gate operated by Andy Foster of High River, Alta.

1952 - July 1, Kingston, Ont.

Today's holiday race program at the Kingston track featured 10 heats of racing and produced a total of eight different heat winners. In the 20 class Pace the heavily favoured Supremus from the Harry Ingles stable of Brighton made a break in the opener and finished eighth and last. In the next two heats he was flawless, winning both trips in identical times of 2:11.3. Other winning drivers were Sted Craig, Jim McIntyre, Burns McKane, Ken Keys and Henry "Hank" Corcoran Sr. The trotter Lord Brookville was impressive for owners Joseph and Claire Smith of Ottawa with a 2-1 standing in the 30 class, coasting home in 2:13.4 for driver Craig. This is just one of five race days to be held here this season.

July 2, 1956 - Port Hope, Ont.

An afternoon of good racing was held here made up of five different events, totalling seven heats. Six different horses made it to the winner's circle with A.P. Grattan the only double-heat winner. This horse made a lot of trips back for a post race bow during the 1956 season as he notched 25 victories for his owner and often driver Osler Burrison of Harwood, Ont. Other winners on the day were Hollyrood Richard for Jack Reid of Orono, Hal Chenault (Ivan Thackery) owned by Wm. Taylor of Pickering; Flirtation (Gerald Lowery) owned by J.J. Orde of Peterboro; Mighty Gun, owned and driven by John R. Ball of Baltimore. When Elgin Wenger, owned by James Heer of Brighton, won a 9/16 mile dash in 1:28 flat it gave Ivan Thackeray his second win of the afternoon. This turned out to be Elgin Wenger's only win of the campaign in 28 starts, in a season that saw the seven-year-old gelding bank $441.00. His lifetime best of 2:16 taken at age five remained his career best.

Note - I have been told that most of these horsemen were resident at a spot generally known by the quaint name of "Grasshopper Flats" located in Hamilton Township Northumberland County.

A 1940's ad from The Canadian Sportsman

As a matter of interest back in the 1950's there existed at least four horses that bore names connected to Canada's Dominion Day and the corresponding U.S. holiday held on July 4th each year. Midland, Ont.-based horseman Roy Lawson trained a horse named Dominion Day Boy who was apparently foaled on July 1. There were also horses that were named July First and July Fourth, the latter owned by Emilien Blondeau of Quebec City. A gentleman named Seeley Adams of Hilton, N.Y. apparently liked the theme as he owned a full brother and sister named July First and also Independence Day.

Dominion Day races were held at a multitude of locations; if you have a favourite, send it along.

Happy Upcoming Canada Day!

June 27, 2016 - 3:58 pmYeah -And we tied up in Lorne

Yeah -And we tied up in Lorne Brethour's barn and there was a heck of a good Barbecue after the races! Oh for the Good Old Days!!

June 27, 2016 - 4:49 amGreat article. I remember my

Joel Weiss SAID...

Great article. I remember my parents going to the races at Batavia Downs when I was very young. They always placed a wager on the horse that you mentioned, July 1. Not only was he a good horse in the early '50's, July 1 was also my birthday. He was my first (of many) "favourite" horses.

Joel Weiss

June 25, 2016 - 2:28 pmJuly 1st also featured

Carolyn Rae SAID...

July 1st also featured Harness Racing for many years at SUNDERLAND, ON.

June 25, 2016 - 12:46 pmKeep them coming Robert.

ron francis SAID...

Keep them coming Robert. Those of us, of a certain age fondly remember July 1 races. It was a highlight of summer in the Ottawa Valley village of South Mountain (pop 300). There was always a competitive card of at lease eight heats. I had the pleasure and honor of calling the last few years. It ended in '91 or '92. A slice of history that helped define rural Canada. Too bad, gone forever.

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