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SC Rewind: The 1973 Prix D'Ete

Published: September 22, 2018 12:19 pm ET

Last Comment: September 26, 2018 12:03 pm ET | 9 Comment(s) | Jump to Comments

In this week's 'Rewind,' Robert Smith revisits one of the greatest race days of the 20th Century in Canada as he takes readers back to the afternoon of August 26, 1973.

On that day driver Nelson White baffled the experts by piloting the three-year-old phenomenon Armbro Nadir to victory in that years Prix D'Ete Pace at Montreal's Blue Bonnets Raceway. It was a day that records tumbled in every imaginable direction. This is a follow up to an earlier Rewind on this same horse.

A large group of followers gather in the winners circle to congratulate all of Armbro Nadir's connections on Prix d'Ete Day. From left: Mr & Mrs John Sheridan, Nelson White, "Ralph", Larry Bird holding blanket, owner Dr. Davis (in his signature jacket), Lloyd White, June White (Nelson's siblings),Roddy McCrae, Chas. Wade and Deb White

1973 - Canada's Fastest Race Ever - 1:56.1

When Armbro Nadir, owned by Dr. Donald Davis of Guelph, Ontario and trained and driven by Nelson White, won the 1973 edition of The Prix D'Ete, they established what was then the fastest mile ever recorded in Canada. The purse of $130,000 also set a record for the richest harness race ever staged in the Country up to that point. This outstanding horse was sired by Airliner out of the mare In Time and was purchased privately for under $5,000 from the Armstrong Bros. operation. In a brief two-year-old campaign, he won all three of his starts in non-stakes events at the end of the 1972 season.

The Prix D'Ete, which was held at Montreal's Blue Bonnets Raceway, proved to be a thriller from start to finish and at the conclusion of the race, all of the starters were captured in the same photograph. The field was termed by the press at the time as "The best in the World" and they did not disappoint. Considered by the bettors as somewhat of an outsider, the winner paid $28.70 for a two-dollar win ticket.

Present for the race were 20,105 fans who wagered a whopping $1,056,555. On the track a world's record was tied and a new track and Canadian mark was set. The fractions were :28.1; :57.4; 1:26.4 with the mile in 1:56.1. These fractions were pretty much unheard of at this time. It was just 14 years prior to this back in 1959 that Canada's first "Miracle Mile" was recorded by Mighty Dudley at the other big Montreal oval, Richelieu Park. Coincidentally "Dudley's" driver that day was Keith Waples who was present for this event as well.

The winner, Armbro Nadir was parked the entire mile as was the second-place finisher Rob Ron Ritzar driven by Keith Waples. At the wire Armbro Nadir, affectionately known as "Ralph", pulled to a one-length margin for the victory. The favoured Ricci Reenie Time finished third. The last horse in the field J.D. Jester was individually timed in 1:57.1, so the entire field of nine horses finished within one second of each other.

Forty-five years ago in 1973, two minute miles were not all that common. In fact only 100 race miles had been recorded on Canadian soil in history to that point in time. Perhaps ironically the 100th had been logged at Blue Bonnets on August 12th of that year. While it reached the century mark in the sport, it was the first for a young driver named Nelson White just 31 at the time. His score behind Armbro Nadir just made the magic mark as the timer stopped in 1:59.4.

Two weeks later when the huge crowd of over 20,000 fans jammed into Blue Bonnets on the afternoon of Sunday, August 26th it was perhaps Canada's greatest race day ever. If it wasn't when the day began, it certainly was once the ninth race entered the history books. The main attraction of the day was the fifth edition of The Prix d'Ete. The field included nine of the best three-year-olds of that year and maybe a few of the best anyone had ever seen. Absent was Otaro Hanover who had opted out of the race despite being in the midst of a stellar campaign for Herve Filion. Not much else was missing.

With a purse of $130,000 this race it was the richest pacing event of the year and was outdone by only two trotting races. They were the Roosevelt International Trot at $150,000 and the Hambletonian with a purse of $147,000.

With the track in ideal condition, the weather in full cooperation and a great field of three-year-olds entered, the stage was surely set for a very fast mile. As the field left the gate some early speed was soon in evidence as Armbro Nesbit (Joe O'Brien) and Keystone Smartie (Wm. Haughton) set fly as they both refused to let Sonny Dancer and Ricci Reenie Time take an easy early lead. Nesbit and Smartie were side by side at the quarter in: 28.1. From here Haughton grabbed the lead but soon let favourite Ricci Reenie Time take the lead reaching the half in :57.4. A few in attendance thought this might be how the race would finish.

With five-eighths of a mile left Armbro Nadir started to make his move but he was forced to go three-wide. Haughton said later that he would have followed him but felt that the Armbro horse would soon run out of gas at the speed they were travelling. If "Whitey" (driver Nelson White) saw the three quarter time of 1:26.4 come up it didn't bother him as he said later that since his horse had been following someone the whole time he felt he would still have some kick left. White told a reporter later "He did get tired there for a few yards so I let him rest for about three seconds and then he took off again."

He indeed did have some "kick" left and hit the wire a winner in 1:56.1 withstanding a late charge by Rob Ron Ritzar and Keith Waples who finished second. The monster mile shattered a raft of existing records almost too numerous to mention. Most noteworthy was that it set a new Canadian record currently held by Romulus Hanover of 1:57.1 set at this track six years earlier in 1967. It also tied the world record set by Romeo Hanover for a three-year-old on a five-eighths mile track set at Sportsman's Park in 1966. Armbro Nadir, or "Ralph" if you wish, was suddenly in some pretty good company.

Armbro Nadir (7) guided by Nelson White reaches the wire a winner in the world record time of 1:56.1 just ahead of Rob Ron Ritzar (9) (Keith Waples) second with heavily favoured Ricci Reenie Time (8) third on the inside.

The win by Armbro Nadir was so astonishing and impressive that several minutes after the race was over a group of bewildered drivers were still scratching their collective heads in disbelief. Among the gathering in the paddock were the greatest names in the sport. Joe O'Brien, Billy Haughton, Sonny and Vernon Dancer and local hero Benoit Cote. Cote was first to break the silence as he told a reporter "I just finished eighth and my horse (Steady Airliner) paced the mile in 1:56.4. I don't believe it!"

Sonny Dancer had no complaints as he felt his horse the favoured Ricci Reenie Time had just gone one of his best races ever. He did ask though "Where did the winner come from?" When told that Armbro Nadir had paced the entire mile on the outside and was even three wide at one point he was left with no alternative but to shake his head. He did offer "That horse has to be some kind of animal...this field was really flying. You don't know what's ahead but this for sure has to be the race of the year so far."

While there were some who believed Ralph was in too tough this day his two handlers were not among that group. Larry and Linda Bird, who had so diligently cared for this horse and believed in him all season long had few doubts. "The win was no surprise to me," said Larry, "not the way he warmed up today with a last quarter in: 30.4 under a tight hold."

In the proverbial twinkling of an eye Armbro Nadir (7) became the fastest horse ever bred by the famed Armstrong Bros. Farm. In the above photo driver Nelson White glances back at third place finisher Rennie Ricci Time and Sonny Dancer while second horse Rob Ron Ritzar was almost out of this picture with just his nose showing. White said later that as the mile marker approached he was most afraid of being overtaken by Keith Waples and Rob Ron Ritzar (Montreal Gazette)

For the horse's owner Dr. Donald Davis, a vet from Guelph, Ont., it was an unbelievable day and season. He had only owned horses for a short time, as in three years, and his achievements this season were well ahead of his aspirations. He told Montreal Gazette reporter Doug Gilbert, "I never had any intention of buying a top horse, all I wanted was just a nice horse for racing. I still can't believe the way this horse races. When I went to the barn at noon today he was sound asleep! I swear he is more like a sheep than a horse...sleep, eat and pace like a damn fool."

Nelson and Debbie White enjoyed a great season in 1973

Whether stated in English or French this great race was the highlight of the 1973 season in Montreal.

Forty-five years have come and gone, but this was truly a great day and an equally great time in Canadian harness racing history.

Closing Note: I am indebted to the great sports writer Doug Gilbert who left us with many great accounts of harness racing events held in Montreal at this time through his writings for the Montreal Gazette. Sadly he lost his life at a rather young age when he was killed by an irresponsible motorist in San Juan, Puerto Rico in 1979 while he was there to cover that year's Pan Am Games.

Who Is It?

Can you correctly identify the two chaps shown above?

September 26, 2018 - 12:03 pmThis week's photo was exactly

This week's photo was exactly as many readers stated showing Ronnie Feagan on the left and Gilles LaChance on the right. Your comments continue to be an important part of each week's Rewind. It was interesting to hear of Mr. Clish and his wife driving a distance of probably over 700 miles each way to take in a weekend of racing. Those were the days!

September 26, 2018 - 11:31 amLooking at that photo of the

Darcy MANN SAID...

Looking at that photo of the finish brought back great memories. I had graduated Grade 12 at Stephen Leacock in June/1973. My father Jack Mann was a regular at Greenwood in the 1970's. We saw Armbro Nadir win his first three starts in Dec/72. In the early winter of his 3 year old season he was entered in a stake series at Blue Bonnets in Montreal. My Dad worked for CNR and his regular run was Toronto/Montreal. Nadir won his first race easily at 6-1 and that started us following him for the season. In the Queen City Stakes at Greenwood, he just got beat by Melvins Woe (Joe Obrien). On Prix d'Ete Sunday we drove with a full car from Toronto to Montreal.(CN Rail was on strike) I do clearly remember clocking Nadir (with my stopwatch) during his final warm-up mile. I had him the last 1/2 mile in 1:02 with a 30 second last quarter. That was an outstanding time back in those days and I remember how excited we all were at how great Nadir looked. We all bet him and he opened up around 9/2 odds. Everytime his price went up I ran back into the lines and bet more. (of course I was only 18 at the time). Watching the excitement of the race was like a miracle. After he won we all ran out into the winners circle. We had gotten to know Nelson White and Larry Bird during the several train trips to Montreal and home. My father always made sure he was working the train whenever Nadir raced at Blue Bonnets. Dinner at Ruby Foo's was fabulous that night. My brother and myself still consider that Sunday our greatest Racing memory ever. 45 years later and I still get chills looking at the pictures. Thank you so much for all the articles you write.

September 24, 2018 - 6:16 pmThis was an exciting day of

Bert Clish SAID...

This was an exciting day of racing. My wife and I drove from Nova Scotia to spend the weekend in Montreal and take in the races. Thank you for such a great recap of the race. Regards.

September 22, 2018 - 3:00 pmRon Feagan and Gilles

Ron Feagan and Gilles Lacahnce
Ron Feagan was the winningest driver in Canada for one year and I think Gilles Lachance beat the record with the trotter Newport Gem

September 22, 2018 - 2:54 pmRon Feagan & ________?

Tim Twaddle SAID...

Ron Feagan & ________?

September 22, 2018 - 2:27 pmRon Feagan and Gilles

Sheldon Rose SAID...

Ron Feagan and Gilles Lachance

September 22, 2018 - 1:32 pmI believe the two chaps are

David Darocy SAID...

I believe the two chaps are Ron Feagan on the left and Gilles Lachance on the right.

September 22, 2018 - 12:46 pmGreat story and

Great story and background.
Nelson was an alumnus of Madawaska Farms in Arnprior, under the guidance of Dr. John Findley.
If I am not mistaken, Larry and Linda Bird also worked at the farm back in the day too
Mystery picture:
Definitely Ron Feagan
Maybe Gilles Lachance

September 22, 2018 - 12:31 pmRon Feagan and Gilles

Ron Feagan and Gilles Lachance

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