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SC Rewind: Strathroy’s Dominion Day


Published: June 26, 2010 9:34 am ET

Last Comment: June 30, 2010 10:16 am ET | 4 Comment(s) | Jump to Comments

Writer Robert Smith takes a nostalgic look at the great racing Town of Strathroy, Ont. and recalls its once popular Dominion Day Picnic and Race Day.

For nearly 50 years the quaint little town of Strathroy, just north of London, Ont., hosted one of Canadian harness racing's best organized and highest class race days. Officially known as "The Dominion Day Picnic", it drew huge crowds every July 1st from across the country and neighbouring border States. It was a time when men dressed in white shirts and ties, ladies wore wide brimmed hats and children clad in knee pants devoured copious amounts of ice cream and soft drinks. It became a day when the little town of 4,500 buzzed with the activity of a big city. While the numbers were much smaller and the stakes obviously far less, many old photographs portray a scene reminiscent of the overflow crowds that congregate each September at The Little Brown Jug.

The first Dominion Day race program was held in 1918, started by Harold Currie a local farmer and horse enthusiast from nearby Adelaide Township. He presided over the annual festivities throughout most of its years and is probably still remembered by many veteran horsemen and yesteryear race goers. His son Leonard often drove the family horses and his daughter Lela Oliver acted as emcee, making trophy presentations to winning owners. Revenues from the extravaganza made it possible to pay out purses far in excess of those offered elsewhere and leftover profits were used to improve the fairgrounds and even donated to charities. The Dominion Day show served as the standard by which all other race days were measured and a win at Strathroy usually meant that you were the best.

In addition to the great day of harness racing featured at Strathroy, many other attractions took place. Baseball games, track and field events and marching bands entertained the huge throngs. One great asset which contributed to the quality of racing was the excellent track. At one time the fastest mile recorded in Canada belonged to Strathroy and its sand-based racing strip, the pride and joy of Mr. Currie. In the fall of 1937 Simcoe Harvester, driven by Cecil Champion and owned by J.T. Payette of Penetanguishene toured the local track in 2:04 to set a track record which may have never been equaled or bettered. Many other miles in under 2:10 were recorded which was quite an accomplishment in that era. In 1948 Oro G. Herbert from the Herbert Stable of London and catch driven by Alfie Moore of Sarnia, was clocked in 2:10 which was an outstanding mile for a three-year-old.

Mr. Currie, who was at times a rather controversial figure, was often at odds with other factions in the racing circles of the day. Whenever a point of criticism or disagreement could be made it usually was, and often he sparred in the press with his detractors. Because of the number of "fast" miles recorded at Strathroy he was often charged with having a "short" track. Finally the matter came to a head and in 1943 he hired a government surveyor to measure the track, allegedly paid for out of his own pocket. Midway through that year's races, a public statement was made to attest to the validity of the track's length. Finally his critics were silenced.

One of the highlights of each Strathroy race day was The Corporal Lee Pace for three-year-olds. The race was a special project of race day organizer Harold Currie as he stood this notable horse at his farm. For many years the offspring of Corporal Lee won the event and often nearly the entire field was made up of his colts. At one point in time there were six consecutive winners all sired by this fine horse which Mr. Currie had brought over from the U.S. back in the 1930's. Part of the program involved Corporal Lee being led onto the track for fans to see. An introduction and short "sketch" of the horse's accomplishments was given by Mr. Currie's daughter which was invariably well received by the audience. A sort of ongoing "joke" existed for years, that if you were involved in a close finish you had a much better chance if your horse was sired by Corporal Lee. Remember, there were no photo finish cameras back then.

Despite such a lengthy existence (1918-1964) the Strathroy races were never cancelled due to the weather. On a number of occasions rain played a part by dampening the track and reducing the crowd, but the festivities never had to be called off.

With the passage of time, changes in the sport and a cultural change in the way people lived and spent their leisure time, the great Strathroy picnic inevitably came to an end. In 1964, after an amazing span of over 45 years, the last race day and picnic was held and the end of a great era went into the history books. Today only memories and old pictures remain as the track was removed many years ago and although the venerable old grandstand stood for several decades as mute testimony to the days of old, it too was eventually demolished. As we reflect on those great years of the Strathroy Dominion Day Picnic and the thousands of people it entertained, it stands as one of the great spectacles of our time.

June 30, 2010 - 10:16 amMr J.T.Payette was the owner

ken willcox SAID...

Mr J.T.Payette was the owner of Pentange race coaurse and he had three meets a year in the thirty and forty and his track The best driver of that era would be there to
race, There was no starting gates then. They started with a bell and some times
there be at least five recalls but every small town harness racing was the thing to
see Thanks Ken Willcox

June 29, 2010 - 11:04 amANN GRANT I remember the

ann grant SAID...

ANN GRANT I remember the year 1949 being at Stratford and our friends the Jeffers mare
raced at Stratford and won a filles race and the furnitue company of Sratford Kroelar
company gave the owner Roy Jeffers a big chesterfield and driver Roy Lawson an
rocking chair. Those were the days harness racing was the big event in most small
towns.Thanks Ann Grant oh yes the mare name was Wanda Harvester named after the
jeffers dauhgter wanda Thanks Again

June 26, 2010 - 6:03 pmI thought Simcoe was listed

Luis Willis SAID...

I thought Simcoe was listed as having horse racing again this year.

June 26, 2010 - 10:57 amThanks again Mr. Smith. Love

Thanks again Mr. Smith. Love the Corporal Lee finish assist. Every Fair was unique and exciting. Only Port Perry listed with races so far this year in Ontario. Keep sharing with us, your BIG fan (in more ways than one) > Al Casselman

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