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We were younger then. Take me back to when...

The View

The final full month of harness racing at Woodbine Racetrack is upon us, and it’s not coming and going for me as easily as I might have thought.

In my late teens, me and my buddies set out for a night at the track, and found ourselves driving aimlessly through Markham, Ontario. We were trying to figure out where on Woodbine Avenue Woodbine Racetrack was located. Eventually a gas station attendant informed us that no form of horse racing existed in the area. We gave up that night. Weeks later, we made the trip to the other end of the city, and alas, we found the track.

I had been to the races one or two times a year as a child, but I fell in love with the sport at Woodbine, in the months and years that followed my first trip as a teenager, with my friends. Yes, the same Woodbine Racetrack where you couldn’t get close to the horses; the Woodbine Racetrack with the giant, and mostly empty grandstand; the Woodbine Racetrack where binoculars were a handy tool to have.

For a kid who grew up in Toronto, and got my driver’s license in the 90s, Greenwood was before my time, and Mohawk was out of reach for a night out.

We sat outside in that Woodbine grandstand, and cheered for our favourite horses. There was my one friend who scanned the paper every morning looking for Tom Strauss and Aberomaha to be entered in to go. I can still hear him cheering down the lane, and banging his program every time the son of Armbro Cruiser was on the track. “C’mon Aber,” he’d scream, loud enough to turn heads.

And then my other buddy. He’d come to the track to see JP Cam, and Pat Crowe, race. And he’d curse if Winning Goalie, Our Bobby B or Strong Clan beat him out in the stretch.

We cheered for Lavern And Shirley every time she was in to go. She lost the last 69 races of her career, but she was so close so often. It was like being a Cubs fan, hoping to be there when they finally won the World Series. She never won the World Series, but we remained fans to her final race.

Kettle Bee, Hare Hare, Raleigh Fingers, Strong Clan, Rabbi Of Racing, World Trade Centre, Arrive At Five, Treecoscious, Chris Seelster, Wonmor Expense. The list goes on and on. I can see the names in the programs, smell the smoke at the track, and hear the regulars screaming at the drivers. Long before I had ever been in a paddock, at a barn, or on a breeding farm, I was a fan. I was just out of my teenage years, watching a show, and loving the ride every time I went.

Soon, I got my first real job at Woodbine, getting quotes from losing drivers. They were the same guys I cheered for in the years earlier, and here I was shoving a tape recorder in their faces after they were defeated in stakes races. I was cursed out a couple of times, but who could blame them.

I’d watch the races from the press box, high atop the grandstand: The judges, charter, timer, announcer, and me. I never called a race, but when tasked with reading out the results for our automated phone line, I made it count, belting out the win, place and show payouts like I was Frank Salive calling the North America Cup... or so I thought. Yes, I was the luckiest guy at the racetrack, just out of school and able to do this for a living.

The idea of another harness race never taking place at Woodbine after April 9, 2018, is not something I’m currently willing to come to terms with. Maybe a summer turf racing festival, over the new seven-eighths mile course they are building – could eventually be planned? Or at least I’ll hope.

My teenage friends have gone on to have families, and moved across the continent. Most of them don’t follow harness racing anymore, and don’t think much about the sport these days. But a mention of Blatantly Bald, Ball And Chain or The Tang Man would bring back a whole lot of smiles in a heartbeat.

Myself, as a small-time racehorse owner, I have a single win at the track to my credit. It came more than 20 years after getting lost on Woodbine Avenue. My pacing filly closed from fifth to first, recording a glacial final quarter-mile time of :33.2, on her way to victory.

I won’t worry about whether or not she holds a track record for the slowest last quarter, over a fast track, by a winning pacer.

She brought me to the winner’s circle at Woodbine. We had our picture taken. Our World Series. I hope that will make April 9th just a little bit easier to handle.

Darryl Kaplan
[email protected]

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