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SC Rewind: More About Old Woodbine

Published: July 21, 2018 10:08 am ET

Last Comment: July 25, 2018 8:59 am ET | 7 Comment(s) | Jump to Comments

As a follow to last week's 'Rewind,' Robert Smith talks more about the historic 1954 opening of the Old Woodbine track in Toronto and the years that followed. His piece includes a most interesting letter from a well-known gentleman who recalls the start-up personally. This concludes the current reminiscence about this famous old racecourse.

An old newspaper clipping from about 1955 announces the upcoming start of the summer racing season at Old Woodbine. On the left is a walker used by the Gardner Stable from Goderich. On the right is a very young Miss Bonnie Turvey from Exeter, Ont. Her father Lloyd Turvey was a popular driver of the day. She is pictured with the horse Captain Wright who was stabled at O.W. for the upcoming racing session.

The early years at Woodbine which eventually became Old Woodbine and then Greenwood cover a very interesting and important time in the history of Canadian harness racing. This old track, which dates back to 1874, hosted both Thoroughbred and Standardbred racing for 120 years, closing in 1993. It was located on an approximate 80-acre parcel of land just a couple of furlongs from Lake Ontario. It was just a ten-minute car ride from the centre of Toronto and also easily accessible by bus and streetcar.

Once the Old Woodbine era started it gradually grew in stature and its importance as the anchor of harness racing in Ontario. As the years rolled by the track grew and prospered. Each year the attendance and mutuel handle increased as did the number of racing dates. The quality of racing improved vastly and larger stables began to make Old Woodbine and eventually Greenwood their home. As purses increased "name" horses and horsemen began to visit more frequently.

An example of the calibre of horses that the Toronto track began to attract was exemplified by the winners in the 1962 Canadian Cup Pace, the track's headline event. Because of the large number of entries (16) in that year's renewal, it was raced in two divisions with no final heat. In the opener the winner was Muncey Hanover, a five-year-old son of Adios owned by the powerful Clearview Stable of Winthrop, Maine with Canadian Earle B. Avery in the bike. His winning time was 2:01 flat. In the second division it was the five-year-old Adios mare Countess Adio, driven by legendary horseman Delvin Miller stopping the clock in 2:00.3 for owners The Armstrong Bros. and Hugh Grant. That year's purse had risen to $15,180 for each race which would be equal to about $128,000 in today's dollars. Those two entrants had combined lifetime earnings well in excess of $520,000.

While all eyes were on the big event that day the race just before the feature drew some interest as well. A horse named Superior Richard turned some heads with his mile clocked in 2:02.4. In the sulky was a young 18-year-old Carman Hie, just beginning his driving career. At this time the track was still called Old Woodbine and racing was taking place over a three-quarter mile track.

Elgin Armstrong, co-founder of the world-renowned Armbro operation at Brampton, Ont., appears with one of his first horses. He was one of the early owners that helped to get Old Woodbine and later Greenwood started.

The 1974 Golden Horseshoe Fact Book contained the following short paragraph.

"When Greenwood joined the roster of Grand Circuit tracks in 1969, it marked the beginning of a golden age in harness racing in Ontario. In 1969 and each season since, more than one million fans annually click through Greenwood's turnstiles to see the world's best trotters and pacers compete in rich stake events."

In a very early close up shot a field of horses head into the first turn at Old Woodbine. A glimpse of some of the old original buildings appear in the background.

On July 1, 1961 the first night time harness racing was held at Greenwood ushering in a totally new version of the sport. It was an immediate success and over 343,000 people or an average of 6,600 per card enjoyed action under the arc lights during the 52-night inaugural meeting.

For the fourth time in just eight seasons Harold McKinley led the driver's race with his 36 trips to the winner's circle.

The above pictures show scenes from opening night.

Many young horse people grew up at the Woodbine /Greenwood complex. A large number of them started their careers working with their parent's horses and later graduated to careers in the sport. In this old photo Ed Bradley long time director of standardbred racing "holds court" with a group of young up and coming horsemen. From left: Bill Hicks, Carman Hie, Mr. Bradley, Wes Coke, John Hayes Jr. and Ronnie Feagan.

Last week's Rewind spawned a most interesting letter from one of our sport's best known, most respected and longest serving members, Dr. Glen Brown. With his blessing I have displayed his recollections of the early days at the Woodbine track. Personal memories are always so much more interesting than newspaper clippings and horse journal accounts. Here is how he summed up his still vivid memories of the beloved old track that many remember so fondly.

"I remember that time quite well. Dad (James "Jim" Brown) had managed Thorncliffe and when the O.J.C. bought them out, he was hired by them as their first harness racing manager. I think he did it for two or three years.

I was a Veterinary student at the time and the Vet in Toronto that I had a summer job with had a contract to provide the horse ambulance services. I worked all day with him, then in late afternoon I took the truck and trailer to Old Woodbine (later known as Greenwood). It was twilight racing at the time. I did that for three summers (1954, '55, '56) and never had to load an injured horse. I'd hate to face Toronto traffic every night with a truck & trailer in today's traffic. I drove from Cummer Avenue above Willowdale each time.

They raced on a half-mile track that was inside the mile track, and I remember my Dad being upset about a much revered huge tree that was just in the infield going into the first turn. It was too far infield to bother the T'bred track, but loomed tight over the new S'bred track. The track never dried very well in the shade, and you could race on a fast track until that turn and then you were in mud. After a few years it was removed.

The OJC built a few new barns along with other improvements. The crowds each night were large. Personally, I was impressed at that young age by a regular attendee. Between the clubhouse and the paddock, there was a house that served as the Trustee's private club. My dad gave me a pass one day and told me to go and see who was in the clubhouse. As usual, it was nearly empty except for a table occupied by the famous comedian Jimmy Durante and his straight man (Eddie Jackson). He was performing at the CNE and came to the races every afternoon.

It was there that I got to know Elgin Armstrong fairly well, and was able to introduce him to Harold McKinley. Harold became the trainer of the Armstrong's Canadian stable and did very well for them for several years."

Jimmy Durante was among the first famous people to visit the downtown Toronto track. He was reportedly a fan of thoroughbred racing and often attended the big tracks in California, sometimes accompanied by other show biz notables.

This era of Canadian harness racing has come and gone and with it has vanished a lot of history. Many friendships and undoubtedly courtships and marriages sprang up there. Time marches on and eventually all things change. It has been a fun trip back in time.

Who Is It?

Can you correctly identify this young horseman who is shown pausing in the winner's circle following a win at Old Woodbine in 1959? The correct answer will appear during the upcoming week.

Bonus Photo

Can you put a name on this 1961 photo also taken at Old Woodbine?

July 25, 2018 - 8:59 amThis week's photo from 1959

This week's photo from 1959 was a young George Gilmour then about 24 in action at Old Woodbine. George was one of four driving brothers: Wm. "Bud", George, John "Guy" and Lloyd.
The bonus photo seemed to create very few problems in identifying as Frank Alexander driving Johnny Dale owned by John R. Ball of Baltimore, Ont. Thanks again for your participation.

July 23, 2018 - 9:12 pmThe bonus picture is Johnny

W Doug HIe SAID...

The bonus picture is Johnny Dale, driven by Frank Alexander from Baltimore Ontario. Owned by John R Ball also from Baltimore Ontario.

The other driver I believe is George Gilmour, of Dexter Nukes fame.

July 23, 2018 - 3:32 pmThe following note was

The following note was received from Marg Bowra

Hi Robert :
Thanks again for sending me on a delightful walk down memory lane as you opened another chapter on memories of the Old Woodbine opening. You have a wonderful talent for seeking out interesting information and presenting it in such a meaningful way for those of us who are familiar with the topics you research.
All the best. Marg (Campbell) Bowra

PS - The photo of opening night under the lights shows Marg's father Duncan Campbell leading the field driving Marjean Chief.

July 21, 2018 - 6:48 pmAnother great article Robert.

Another great article Robert. I just loved going to Old Woodbine (Greenwood).
Can you imagine a nightly average attendance of 6,600 horse followers. WOW. Amazing.
Where have they all gone?? Sad.

July 21, 2018 - 5:38 pmWish it was still there

Wish it was still there Robert! Is the first young driver, maybe Larry Walker?

July 21, 2018 - 2:58 pmBonus photo is Frank

Tom Foley SAID...

Bonus photo is Frank Alexander. Is the horse Johnny Dale?

July 21, 2018 - 10:20 amBud Gilmour, Frank Alexander.

Gord Brown SAID...

Bud Gilmour, Frank Alexander.

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