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A Triumphant Return

Trot Feature: Ottawa Rideau Canal

Forty years after ice racing began its magical run on Ottawa’s Rideau Canal, Bill Galvin set out to replicate what he was able to do in the late 1970s, and bring back the long-lost tradition. While Galvin may have run into some new roadblocks in 2018, that didn’t stop the efforts to promote harness racing at one of Canada’s most iconic locations. By Melissa Keith

Bill Galvin isn’t one to put a unique promotional opportunity on ice. There have been two exceptions in the career of the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame Communicator: 40 years ago, when he led efforts to make trotting races on Ottawa’s Rideau Canal a focal point of the inaugural Winterlude festival; and February 2018, when the sport made an unusual return to the Canadian capital.

In 1978, Galvin, then responsible for promotions and publicity at the Canadian Trotting Association (a precursor to Standardbred Canada), went to Ottawa for a business meeting with the National Association of Canadian Racetracks.

“A fella by the name of Dave Gorman - the Gorman family used to own Connaught Park [in Gatineau, QC] - he sent me a note that said, ‘Don’t forget to bring your skates, Bill,’” remembers Galvin. “I’m a skater and I’m from the area. So I’m skating on the canal, and this ice is just like on a rink, you know? I’m looking around and seeing the banks of the canal on the straightaway, and I’m thinking, ‘Wouldn’t this be a great place to have ice racing?’ I knew the history of racing on the Ottawa River, behind the Parliament Buildings, and they built a grandstand that held 5,000 people, and this is a natural.”

A prominent promoter of harness racing then and now, Galvin approached the National Capital Commission about reviving the tradition on the perfect ice surface. His request corresponded with preliminary planning for a new program called Winterlude. Within a month of asking, Galvin’s request to reintroduce ice racing to Ottawa had been approved. “I had the thing put together before anybody really knew about it,” he admits with a smile.

After the practical elements were in place for trotting on the canal, Galvin went to work capturing the public imagination. “Doing publicity for harness racing, it’s not like writing a report on the races, where horses finished first, second, third and so on,” he laughs.

As then-President of the North American Harness Racing Publicists Association, he shared details of the event with friends and colleagues beforehand, ensuring a strong media presence, and found mainstream media outlets more than receptive to covering it as well. “I went to CBC and they loved the idea - it was so unusual. And there was even an American program that used to do an hour of sports on Saturdays, they picked it up and they carried it there.” Sports Illustrated also included a feature on the Winterlude ice races.

He discovered the Ontario Department of Tourism had even picked up on the ice racing as an attention-grabbing theme for the first edition of the now-40-year-old Winterlude. “There was a big ad in the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, in Detroit, and I think a Philadelphia paper, and it was promoting Winterlude. It was big - it had harness horses coming right out at you.”

Galvin arranged for live national TV and radio coverage, and made sure that small yet crucial details weren’t overlooked, from custom toques to refreshments for participants. “A good friend of mine, Kenny Middleton [Sr.], he and his wife ended up making sandwiches for the drivers that came in.”

Once a common Canadian pastime, the era of ice racing may be over. Climate change, paired with contemporary concerns about safety and liability, likely put the brakes on plans to bring trotting back to the Rideau Canal, although Galvin says he never heard an official reason for a ban on ice races after the 1980s. “I said I would like to do ice racing on the canal in 2018. They [Heritage Canada staff] said they do not allow horses on the canal anymore,” explained Galvin. “They’re never ever going to have horse racing there again, so we decided on the ice sculpture instead, and I said that would be great.”

After he and friend Dr. Roly Armitage had gained formal approval for the life-sized harness horse and driver ice sculpture, Julie Descoteaux of Heritage Canada led the team responsible for its creation and placement in Confederation Park. Ice carvers Alexei Andreev and Igor Stepanov, from Yakutsk, Sakha Republic in Siberia (Russia), created the detailed horse, driver and sulky (titled “Trotting on the Canal: An Iconic Winterlude Moment Frozen in Ice”) from crystalline ice. As Galvin points out, the traditional Siberian artists from the second-coldest city on Earth were selected for their skill in carving realistic animals from ice, bone, wood and stone.

Visiting Confederation Park with Galvin a few days after the opening of Winterlude 2018, one can’t help but notice how the harness horse ice sculpture attracts admiring viewers. Cameras and selfie-snapping phones are in near-constant action at the outdoor exhibit, which includes interpretive panels on ice racing’s local history. A toddler breaks away from his friends and stands beside the horse, pointing at it wordlessly for a long moment. It’s impossible not to sense what has been accomplished.

“I’m trying to remember the last time that harness racing got the federal government to publicize horse racing. It hasn’t happened,” says Galvin. “They spent a lot of money. They had Heritage Canada promoting harness racing! CBC, all the media, they were all there [for the opening, February 3]. And they set it all up, not me.”

Crowds 40,000 strong famously flanked the Rideau Canal for the February 1979 ice races. A young future Prime Minister attended with his Prime Minister father, Pierre, and brothers Michel and Alexandre, meeting Standardbreds and members of another well-known Canadian family, the Filions. Galvin says Justin Trudeau was invited to visit the ice sculpture this year, although the Prime Minister had not formally done so as of press time.

Winterlude 2018 organizers anticipate that the usual average of 700,000 people will have enjoyed the festival’s various displays and activities by its conclusion February 19. This, plus the documented social media attention that “Trotting on the Canal” has received (25,000 views on Facebook by February 13; an additional 16,000 for a Facebook video produced by Algonquin College students), validates the efforts of Galvin and Armitage. Although trotting could not return to the ice in Ottawa, when the sculpture melts, the water will end up in the Ottawa River, where ice racing last took place in 1898.

The sculpture and its prominent place at Winterlude constitute more than a symbolic victory to Galvin. “We have a federal department doing that for horse racing,” he notes approvingly. “I think that’s the story behind the story.”

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