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SC Rewind: The Starting Gate Turns 70

Published: July 15, 2017 10:38 am ET

Last Comment: July 16, 2017 9:23 pm ET | 4 Comment(s) | Jump to Comments

In today's Rewind Robert Smith reminds us that this year Canadian harness racing will quietly observe a rather important milestone in its long and colourful history. It was the introduction of the mobile starting gate 70 years ago. Included today are great old photos of a number of earlier starting gates and also the mention of a few of those who served as starters down through the years.

An early starting gate owned and operated by Art Whitesell of Tillsonburg, Ont. is shown at his hometown track in 1953.

I think that if all the so called historians of harness racing were polled to ask what the greatest innovation in the past 75 years of our sport has been, one common answer would undoubtedly prevail. The introduction of the mobile starting gate back in 1946 (in the U.S.) and 1947 in Canada, would have to be at the top. It is credited with "saving" the sport from sure extinction if the old method of open scoring had continued much longer. It has been said that the scoring method in use prior to this was driving people away in droves.

While a number of attempts were made in various parts of Canada previously, the generally accepted first appearance of the mobile gate as we know it today happened in May of 1947. A man named Tom McDonnell of Hamilton put together a workable gate and was able to persuade enough people of its worthiness and on the afternoon of May 24, 1947 his new invention went into action at Sarnia, Ontario. The McDonnell gate was mounted on the family car, a 1939 Plymouth coupe. When required for race days it could be quickly outfitted for track duty including removal of the trunk lid, and when the day was finished, it went back to its usual purpose.

A number of descendants of the original McDonnell family took an interest in becoming starters and to this day the name remains. Tom's only son, Wm. worked with his father for many years on the gate and as an announcer and later pursued a lifetime in other areas of the sport until his passing in 2015. Tom's brother Alex became a starter and his sons have followed.

This is the original starting gate, the first one ever used in Ontario. It was built by Tom McDonnell and debuted at Sarnia, Ont. in 1947.


An early starting gate owned and operated by Tom McDonnell of Hamilton is shown above from the mid 1950's.

Later that same year in 1947, Art Whitesell a Tillsonburg car dealer unveiled his gate at Grand Valley, Ont. on Labour Day weekend. Art performed the starter's duties at virtually every small Town track in Southwestern Ontario for many years. When London opened their doors for night time racing in 1961 he served as their first starter and filled that position until his passing.

The gate's acceptance was immediate and with it came the ability to greatly improve the staging of races. The starts were accomplished quickly and fairly, and race post times could be adhered to with precision. This single innovation seemed to advance the sport in a sort of quantum leap!

While the starter draws little attention in the staging of races, their job is tremendously important​ .Down through the years many people have served as starters and were usually highly respected and appreciated in their "home " area. ​
If readers have special memories about starters from days gone by feel free to share them.

I have assembled a collage of old photographs related to starting gates. As the pictures portray, the gates have changed considerably over the years.

​The vehicle shown above was a very early starting gate as evidenced by the vehicle. I do not have specific information about this photo.


Starter Archie Cochrane was a well known starter in his home area around Oshawa and Orono for many years. Here he is shown sending a field away at the Lindsay Exhibition.


Harold Wilson served as a starter for many years at the big Montreal tracks. He not only communicated with the drivers he also spoke to horses. Here he chats with Checkout from the Miron stable to see how the fields should be sent away. (Harness Horse)


Officials at Blue Bonnets gather to pay tribute to long time starter Harold Wilson (in light coat) in recognition of his 2,500th start. From left: Mike MacCormack, Bill Slack, Bob Chicone, Bob Pare, Wilson and PR Director Albert Trottier. Raymond Lemay, far right does the presenting in this 1966 photo (Harness Horse)


When Thorncliffe Park opened in 1950 they showcased a very modern and "jazzy" starting car which was manned by Cliff Bradley (Michael Burns)


This scene is from the 1950 Little Brown Jug as the field approaches the starting line. That year's Jug winner was Dudley Hanover driven by Delvin Miller (Hoof Beats)


Ernie Brown, longtime starter at the Ontario Jockey Club Circuit


The above gate was operated by Andy Foster in Western Canada. This photo is from Virden, Manitoba around 1954​. Is that a Packard?


​Above is starter Steve Phillips, an Ohio native and the man credited with inventing and perfecting the modern day starting gate. His first gate was mounted on a 1930 Ford chassis which he took to North Randall Ohio in the 1930's but Grand Circuit officials refused to allow him to use it on race days. His attempts persisted and in 1946 he convinced officials at the then fairly new Roosevelt Raceway to try his gate. This one on a Chrysler car reportedly became an immediate success, in fact some say it took just one race to convince Mr. Levy. Acclaimed as the best starter ever in his 50 year career, Phillips operated it for many years at both Roosevelt and Yonkers, retiring in the mid 1960's​. This gentleman always wore a shirt and tie and reportedly never the same one two days in a row. (Roosevelt Raceway archives)


​Above is Roger Nagle of Salford, Ont., who travelled with Art Whitesell for many years and later worked with Bob Belore as a driver and starter. ​This photo was taken trackside at Simcoe, Ont.


Officials at a California track are shown in front of a 1947 Ford truck outfitted for starting harness races​ .It is believed to be one of the first of its kind on the West Coast.


TRIVIA QUESTION: What were the names of the well known duo that started races for many years in near Eastern Ontario (Peterborough area)? The car driver also drove horses...

July 16, 2017 - 9:23 pmProbably the greatest Fan

Probably the greatest Fan improvement change in Harness Racing. Probably the second greatest was removing the hub rail.

July 16, 2017 - 12:15 pmThanks to you trivia buffs; I

Thanks to you trivia buffs; I appreciate your participation. The people I had in mind were Roy Mitchell and Retta Herrington, the ones offered by Carman. I am not familiar with the combo of Art and Stu Cochrane so that answer may also be correct.

July 15, 2017 - 2:15 pmAnswer to the trivia question

Carman Hie SAID...

Answer to the trivia question - the driver was Retta Harrington and the starter was Roy Mitchell. Roy also drove a few horses. In the early 50's, Roy was the starter at Baltimore, better known as Grasshopper Flats.

July 15, 2017 - 1:43 pmRobert, I believe it

Bob Adams SAID...

I believe it was Art and Stu Cochrane.

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