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SC Rewind: Tale Of Two Sundays

Published: September 24, 2016 9:37 am ET

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In this week's Rewind Robert Smith remembers some world class racing held over 60 years ago at Montreal's Richelieu Park. It was a defining time that paved the way to a new chapter in Canadian harness racing that brought the Continent's best horses to Canada.

Genial Race Secretary and gracious host of the day George Giguere welcomes the winning horse Philip Scott and his connections following a huge victory in the International Pacing Derby at Richelieu Park. From left: Mr. Giguere, Mr. and Mrs. Geo. Reed, co-owners and driver Frank Safford. Driver Safford stated that this mile would have been clocked in at least 2:00 at his home track Roosevelt Raceway (Harness Horse photo)

Sixty or so years ago what might be termed 'World Class Racing' was a rarity in Canada. That is until the folks at Richelieu Park decided to invite the Continent's best of both gaits and put on a really big show. Late in the fall of 1954 Richelieu Park brass agreed to allow their masterful Race Secretary Georges Giguere to literally 'pull out all the stops'. It was a promotional plan that was utilized with tremendous success on a number of occasions in the years that followed. To put it mildly, this was a bold move.

On Sunday, October 10, 1954 a huge race was scheduled for the faithful at Richelieu Park. It was billed as "The International Pacing Derby". To attract the best available pacing talent on the North American Continent a huge purse of $15,000 was up for grabs. To put this in proper perspective that amount in today's dollars amounts to almost $360,000. As another benchmark, the highest purse offered at Richelieu on the under card this big Sunday was $2,000. That race was listed as a Class 18 Pace and was won by Barney Diplomat owned by Hector Clouthier of Pembroke and driven by Eric Conley.

The Derby field drew a total of nine entrants with the majority being shipped in from the U.S. Representing local interests were Adio Abe, Star Volo and King Pola, all entrants in the just completed $5,000 Canadian Pacing Derby held just five days earlier at Quebec City. Adio Abe was the winner of that race, splitting heats with Star Volo. The other entries came from Philip Scott, Egan Grattan, Wilmington's Star, Chuck Volo, Hillsota and Ferman Hanover. The cast of drivers was somewhat of a Who's Who, allowing Montreal fans to see the sport's top reinsmen in person.

The group of high profile drivers, mainly from the U.S. appear in a trackside photo at Richelieu Park. From left: Morris MacDonald, Jimmy Jordan, Howard Landers, Franklin Safford, Billy Haughton, Hugh Bell and Wendell Wathen. MacDonald was included as he was a late fill-in for John Simpson (Harness Horse)

As an announced crowd of 14,500 gathered on Sunday afternoon at Richelieu, absolutely no one went home disappointed (well, perhaps maybe a few unlucky bettors). The big race went in two heats and several records were shattered in the process. In the opening heat Egan Grattan, a Canadian-bred horse but now U.S.-owned, was the winner as he beat out Wilmington's Star and third place finisher Philip Scott. The mile in 2:03 2/5 set a new track record. In the second heat Philip Scott, driven by Frank Safford, was the winner and again lowered the standard pacing the mile in 2:03 flat. Both drivers were awarded a $500 bonus for bettering the track record.

The popular Star Volo, well loved by Montreal fans, was eliminated in the first heat when another local horse King Pola stepped in his wheel. In the second try he was much more impressive but due to poor racing luck could finish no better than third. A new record was set this day when a total of $250,000 was wagered which bettered previous marks for both harness and thoroughbred contests held in Montreal.

A short quote from the Oct. 20, 1954 issue of the Harness Horse magazine summed up the day. "Never before in the history of harness racing in this country has such an outstanding field raced together, much less on a Quebec track. The harness racing game that has been growing by leaps and bounds in our midst received a real shot in the arm, by the coming of these outstanding performers. This race has been the talk of the town ever since it was first announced."

Just three short weeks exactly to the day, a repeat performance of the great pacing event was again scheduled but this time the $15,000 purse was for the best Trotters in the land. Mr. Giguere once again performed his 'magic' and yet another banner day was held on Sunday afternoon. On this day the crowd was announced at just 8,000, a large crowd by any standards but somewhat below the one from three weeks earlier. Much of the credit to the lower attendance was attributed to a considerably colder day; after all it was Halloween Day.

Lanier Hanover, owned by Cleo A. Young of Timmonsville, S.C., was the winner of the International Invitational Trot. He is shown here in the Richelieu paddock with groom Charlie Coleman and driver John Simpson Sr. The five-year-old gelded son of Dean Hanover was one of the sport's top earners in 1954. (Harness Horse)

On Sunday afternoon October 31, a large field of 11 of the best trotters the sport could muster lined up to headline another 'monster' day at Richelieu. Once again the bulk of the field shipped in from the U.S. side. While the race favourites were ship-ins, the Montreal fans had reason to be hopeful that at least one or more local horses could upset the odds makers. A total of four Canadian owned trotters headed by the very popular Ben Boy were the fan favourites, along with Aerial Gunner, Lord Brookville and Doctor Truax.

In the opening heat Lanier Hanover prevailed over the field and in so doing set a new track record for trotters of 2:04.2, erasing the existing record held by Vic Song. For his efforts the Richelieu management rewarded driver Simpson with a cheque for $500 in similar fashion to what had happened in the pacing event. In the second heat a major upset occurred when the lightly-regarded mare Janets Girl was the winner, lighting up the tote board with a win payoff of $50.90. In the second heat much of the racing action was provided by local hero Ben Boy and driver Keith Waples as they cut out most of the early fractions and narrowly missed victory when the little "Benny" as the Press called him was nipped at the wire and finished third. Ben Boy was owned by Mrs. Ruth Wray of Schomberg, Ont. Several members of the Wray family are still involved in the sport today.

All of the drivers lined up for a photo prior to the Invitational Trot at Richelieu Park. I have listed them with their horse's name in brackets along with the order of finish. From left: Marshall Moore (Don Scott, 11-9), Jimmy Larente (Aerial Gunner, 9-10), Percy Robillard (Doctor Truax, 6-6), John Simpson (Lanier Hanover, 1-2), Morrie MacDonald (Gene Mac, 5-4), Paul Compton (Marcia D., 2-11), Dave Smith (Janet's Girl, 7-1), Dick Williams (Lord Steward, 3-5), Ray Garrity (Betty Astra, 8-8), Keith Waples (Ben Boy, 4-3 ), Eric Conley (Lord Brookville 10-7). (Harness Horse photo)

Race days such as these were monumental in adding to the sport's history books. They were not just another day of racing, they were events that drew people like a magnet. At this time Richelieu Park was just emerging from a devastating fire late in the 1953 season that had claimed a number of horses and destroyed a portion of the grandstand as well as several stables. A huge rebuilding program restored the facilities, making it possible for great events such as these.

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