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SC Rewind: Old Woodbine, Early Years

Published: July 14, 2018 10:56 am ET

Last Comment: July 19, 2018 8:26 am ET | 7 Comment(s) | Jump to Comments

In this week's 'Rewind,' Robert Smith takes a rather nostalgic look back at a very important time in our sport's history. His piece recalls the 1954 opening of the Old Woodbine track in downtown Toronto and revives a few memories from the early years at that historic track. This happening started off extended racing in Ontario that has gone on ever since. As usual, a number of old photographs help to capture the times.

Back in early July of 1954 a widely published sport's item on the news wire system announced the start up of harness racing at Toronto's fabled Woodbine racetrack, later commonly referred to as Old Woodbine. The article stated "It has been 62 years since Woodbine, scene of the historic Queen's Plate, has provided for standardbreds." It was indeed an historic happening. The inaugural meeting hosting pacers and trotters was to be a 35-day meeting with all racing taking place during daylight hours. Weekday post times were scheduled for 5:00 p.m. while weekends and holiday cards would begin at 2:30 p.m. During the week the final race was to be started by 7:45, thus considered to be "twilight racing." It also stated that "Floodlight racing with mutuel wagering is not allowed in Ontario."

Above is the original Woodbine racetrack as it appeared in 1909. At that time only thoroughbred racing was held at this historic track located on Queen Street not too far from downtown Toronto

Monday, July 5, 1954 marked the opening day of racing at the Old Woodbine track. Six races, two double dashes and four single dashes filled the card, making a day of eight heats. ​There were two feature races, both carded as "Class 18 Conditioned Pace." The first was won in two straight heats by Lenas Boy, driven by Lloyd Turvey for owner Reg McGee, a Goderich auto dealer, in a speedy 2:13. In the second feature, the four-year-old mare Evelyn G​.​ Dillon was home first in both heats, the quickest in 2:15.2. The Dillon Mc sired miss was owned by Jack Goyette of Hamilton, Ont., and very capably driven by Almer Holmes. Day One was in the record books; many more were to follow.

In preparation for the coming of Standardbred racing a reported $50,000 was spent to install a new half-mile track within the existing thoroughbred course. The article introducing the Toronto meeting said "Horsemen who have trained over the new strip say it is in first class shape and predict that new Canadian records will be set over the course before the meeting ends on August 13."

Very early in the meeting a new record was set on just the sixth day of racing. Competing in the Dan Patch Stakes for a purse of $2,500, three-year-old gelding Mr. Galvin paced a mile in 2:09.3 to set the new standard. This outstanding performer from the barn of Russell Miller of Dutton already had 17 wins in 19 lifetime starts, going seven for eight as a sophomore. Jack Mehelenbacher, an N.H.L. referee in the winter season, was in the sulky for this win. Clark Herbert was second for driver Wray Turvey and owners Evans and Fraser.

The following year in 1955, Mr. Galvin returned to Old Woodbine for just one race. He captured the track's premiere event, The Canadian Cup which carried a purse of $6,000. It was a two-heat affair and U.S. driver Eddie Wheeler was in the sulky for owners Jean and Russell Miller. Another interesting event of that season was a special match race between Canadian-owned Ruth Chips and U.S. invader Clever Counsel from the barn of Lynn Wilson of Zanesville, Ohio. The winner was Ruth Chips, owned by Earl and Elton "Dunc" Barnes of Ailsa Craig and driven by Wilbert Hopkins. The purse was $1,000.

Numerous fast miles were recorded in that first meeting with the quickest being attributed to Argyle Grattan, a noted horse of the time. Owned and driven by Duncan Campbell of Ailsa Craig, Ont., the then six-year-old gelding paced over the new Woodbine track in 2:02.2 which was then considered quite a mile!

Argyle Grattan the undisputed star of the inaugural Woodbine meeting in 1954 is shown with his two very attentive caretakers Pat (left) and Margaret Campbell, the owner's daughters.

In a recent chat Pat (who later became Mrs. George Gilmour) shared a couple of her memories from that year of 1954:

"I do have many memories of that summer...I was 15 and my sister Marg 17. Our horses raced well and Dad was doing a lot of catch driving which was new to us. Marg and I had our first experiences at paddocking for other stables. Clarence Lockhart was our favourite. We got to know Audrey and Harold McKinley and we remained life-long friends. We made many friendships with other kids our age."

In the driver's department two well-known teamsters, Hughie McLean and Vic Lutman emerged as the leading drivers at the first ever meeting at this historic track with 20 wins apiece. It might come as no surprise that as far as I could determine only one winning driver from that historic meeting held 64 years ago is still with us today. Any guesses?

Several feature races such as The Canadian Cup and The Maple Leaf Cup Trot were continued from their introduction at Thorncliffe Park which staged harness racing for four years between 1950 and 1953. Many of those who participated during those years also raced at the opening of Old Woodbine. As time went on the meetings grew longer and the number of horse people who competed there grew by leaps and bounds. The crowds also increased as the sport gained in popularity.

​During the first year at Woodbine a total of 73,490 racing fans passed through the turnstiles to get a look at harness racing; many were new fans, perhaps converts from the runners. The wagering totals showed that ​$2,395,657 went through the machines for a daily average of $68,477. Over $125,000 in purses were paid out during the 35-day meeting.

A sobering incident happened during the inaugural meeting that I personally recall even though it may not be recorded elsewhere. Up to this time in history qualifying races were rarely staged but were gradually becoming more prevalent involving mainly two-year-olds. It is interesting to note that when they were held, in contrast to today, a minimal purse such as $100 was offered. One morning early in the meeting a qualifier was being held. The entrants made their way on to the track and were nearly ready to start. One horse seemed to stop and stand at the edge of the track while the others began to assemble for the start of the race. The starter sensed something was wrong, perhaps broken equipment or a horse unwilling to start. Someone went back up the track to investigate. Veteran driver Wes Wilson of Leamington was slumped over in the sulky and sat motionless as his horse also remained stationary. He had suffered a fatal heart attack, truly dying doing what he loved to do best. Thankfully it did not happen during the race.

Today it seems that the Old Woodbine/Greenwood era of Canadian harness racing holds a special nostalgic spot in the hearts of many of the true veteran racing fans still left. From the sight of the huge old grandstand that seemingly went on forever, to the picket fence visible in the background of many photographs, it just seems to have been a special place in a special time. We can never go back in time beyond doing so in one's own mind but I think it would be a trip taken by many if ever it were offered.

I am sure there are many in the reading audience who have memories from the Old Woodbine and later Greenwood track. Don't be afraid to share them.

​During the 1954 season several young horses made their debut during the five week meeting. Pictured above is Sammy Herbert a standout performer from the stable of Wm. and Jack Herbert of London. Jack who would have been about 37 years of age at that time is in the sulky. The Herberts were always known for their neatly kept stables, immaculately groomed horses and nice driving outfits they wore. The quaint white picket fence provided the backdrop for many early year photographs.

Fans of all ages attended races at Old Woodbine. In the very early years children were not admitted but eventually those rules were relaxed and youngsters also joined in the fun.

Left: Jack Gordon of Coldsprings, Ont. was a regular competitor during the 1950's and 60's, always with a quality stable. He is shown here receiving a trophy from Carling's Brewery sales rep. Dave Hegge around 1962. He also received a $50.00 prize for his efforts. Jack was among the group that started it all off in 1954 and won multiple races with full brothers Thor Grattan and Hal Grattan Patch. Both of these memorable horses were co-owned by another pioneer of the day Cliff Hie of Cobourg.

Right: In 1960 a very young Wm. Wellwood made his first appearance as a driver at the O.W. track. Although he just turned 20 during the meeting, he managed a medium sized stable as trainer and driver winning a large number of races. His biggest triumph came as he piloted the sometimes erratic three-year-old trotter Kintoo Colby to victory in that year's Futurity. He was also very much in demand as a catch driver. Throughout his lengthy career he continued to enjoy racing at this track, undoubtedly because of his early years spent here. I can recall visiting Wm. and even spending an overnight stay at "Hotel Tack" on the Old Woodbine backstretch.

W​ho Is It?

Can you identify this fine horseman of yesteryear sporting a million-dollar smile? This photo was taken at Old Woodbine in 1960 but he was also a first year participant. Maybe someone can even name the horse as well. The correct answer will be given during the coming week.

Bonus Photo

As a slight diversion can you identify this young fellow captured by a photographer as he surveys the Greenwood track.

July 19, 2018 - 8:26 amOur picture ID'ers showed

Our picture ID'ers showed some versatility this week readily identifying famed jockey Sandy Hawley. The Old Woodbine harness driver's picture was apparently not as easy. As pointed out by Brian Webster that smiling gentleman was Almer Holmes, a long time trainer, driver and excellent farrier. He also raised beef cattle and pigs on his farm near Jerseyville. Almer left us back in 2014 at the age of 84. He was also pictured at the top of this week's Rewind in the Old Woodbine stretch driving Baron Atom to victory for owner Max Webster.
Keith Waples IS the only winning driver from that first season as stated by John Hill. Several of his wins came behind Ben Boy including that year's Maple Leaf Trot. Thanks to everyone for "throwing your hat in the ring."

July 14, 2018 - 8:30 pmI had an inside track on this

I had an inside track on this one, the driver is Almer Holmes and the horse is Baron Atom, early in his career.

July 14, 2018 - 2:42 pmWould the surviving winning

John Hill SAID...

Would the surviving winning driver be Keith Waples ?

July 14, 2018 - 1:49 pmBecause I am a "little"

Dave Aziz SAID...

Because I am a "little" younger, My first visit was Aug. of 1968. I had previously visited Woodbine for the T-Breds; came to Greenwood for curiosity. When the first race I saw went into the clubhouse turn, (after starting on the backstretch, where many thoroughbreds races started) and did NOT stop, going around a whole other lap. I was astounded that a race was that long!!?? WOW! I knew after 60 seconds I liked this game better. The much longer race was fairer for a bettor, more entertaining!

July 14, 2018 - 12:06 pmKenny Carmichael, Sanford

Gord Brown SAID...

Kenny Carmichael, Sanford Hawley.

July 14, 2018 - 12:01 pmI remember attending Old

I remember attending Old Woodbine as a child. I think I saw Countess Adios race, late 50's or early 60's.
I remember the long chute on the 3/4 mile track - different than anything I had seen to that point.
The bottom picture is Sandy Hawley.
A guess for the other - Fred Goudreau - because of the smile!
The picture at the top kinda looks like my buddy Dr. John Findley.

July 14, 2018 - 11:25 amThe Bonus Photo is Sandy

The Bonus Photo is Sandy Hawley.

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