Horse Racing 250

By Willa Wick in Places, Events, & History

Harriston race track picture postcard 1908 (Courtesy of the Wellington County Museum and Archives)

Move over Canada 150, there’s someone older than you.  Not to throw a wet blanket on the 150 celebrations, but there’s another faction of Canadian history that’s been on the go for exactly 100 years longer.  Unless you’re an equine fancier or are involved with racing in any capacity, you wouldn’t have been aware that the Canadian horseracing industry is celebrating its 250th anniversary this year.

Having two large anniversaries like that should make for parties and celebrations nearly every weekend during 2017.  We’re quite aware of the 1867 Confederation and how Canada has been shaped, but horseracing for 250 years – unbelievable.

Give a man anything that moves and he’ll try to race it – be it tinker toys, soap box derby vehicles, bicycles, turtles, dogs, yellow plastic ducks, cars or horses.  And since horses were used before most of the others, it’s natural to assume that there will always be a bit of “my horse can go faster than your horse.”  While there certainly would have been little contests among the young bucks of the native tribes, the pioneer youth engaging in speed steeds, or cavalry riders having a little fun on the side, it was 250 years ago that the first recorded race took place in Canada.

On July 1st, 1767 on the Plains of Abraham, eight years after the battle there, the first “recorded” horse race on Canadian soil took place.  Details are sketchy but we know the race was to begin at 5:00 p.m. and was run in three heats: once around the course with a half hour rest between heats.  The contest ended in a bit of an upset when Captain Prescott’s horse Modesty won the race and the purse of $40.  Many who wagered were “parted from their money.”

That action opened the doors and paved the way for registered racing and soon the Plains of Abraham became known as Canada’s leading racetrack which attracted American as well as Canadian horses.

Thoroughbred tracks opened across the nation, with harness racing in its wake.  Ontario was well represented with establishments in Toronto, Kingston, Cobourg, Cornwall, Caledonia, Hamilton, London, Guelph and Niagara.  The Queen’s Plate, Canada’s longest continually running thoroughbred race was first held in 1860.  The reason it’s called the “Queen’s” Plate is because Queen Victoria gave a grant of 50 guineas towards the race with the stipulation that the race become an annual contest.

Betting was customary in horse racing from the very beginning. But even as now, gambling could become addictive. In places like Halifax in the 1830s, personal losses were so severe that racing was banned for more than 10 years.  In the prohibition years betting, as well as alcohol, was taboo.  Today wagering, lotteries, and the addition of the slots are all regarded as normal.

In Fredericton, New Brunswick the first recorded standardbred race took place in 1816.  Until a venue is regulated, anything goes. In the early days, impromptu races were held on ice, grass or trails like the lesser used red clay roads of P.E.I.  These events would bring big crowds, but unfortunately, as well as good entertainment, the afternoons often ended in fist fights or other disorderly conduct.

Eventually trotting clubs were formed in many parts of the country.  That action gave more credibility to racing, and legitimacy to the sport.  Being curtailed by rules and regulations was met with resistance by many horsemen as they wanted things to remain the way they always did it.

The Fredericton Raceway opened in 1887. Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip attended their first harness race at Fredericton in July 1959. When it closed its doors in 2016, it was Canada’s longest running standardbred racetrack.

During the late 1800s, horse racing was a big attraction at agricultural fairs.   An 1908 picture depicting such a scene, and printed on souvenir postcards, has opened up a whole new story over a hundred years later.

The hand-tinted view of horses and sulkies coming down the stretch with crowds of well dressed onlookers lining the dirt track has been reproduced on a huge mural gracing the side of Harry Stone’s Restaurant in Harriston (see Rural Route, October 2016).  In addition, a silent auction was held for the same postcard picture.

The picture was enlarged, framed, and displayed on an easel in various businesses throughout Harriston, eventually landing in the main room at CIBC.  It had rested several weeks with no action, and just as it was slated for removal and awarded to the highest bidder, a new name and bid suddenly appeared.  The winning bid was from a well-known Belmore area horseman, Jim McKague.

McKague was on his way to purchase a horse.  As he put it “You just don’t have that kind of cash in your back pocket,” so he stopped at the bank in Harriston.

At the CIBC he was immediately drawn to the big picture on display.  He placed his bid and knew what he would do with the picture if he was the successful bidder.  The framed horse scene did land in his possession but it didn’t stay there long.  Because this is the 250th anniversary of horse racing, McKague loaned the picture to the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame to be used for their promotional activities.  It was later donated to the Road Horse Association to be used for their silent auction, and was won by another avid race horse supporter for his private collection.

Meanwhile a postcard sized picture along with the explanation has been on the display table as the 250th travelling exhibit has been at several shows, agricultural conventions, and local racetracks.  During the summer the exhibit will be travelling across Canada along with a Hall of Fame staff member dressed in period racing silks.

Early racing uniforms consisted of a long jacket-style top with matching fabric cap. Most are now one piece coveralls; hard hats are mandatory. If a two-piece racing outfit is chosen it will be a short-cropped waist jacket with the standard white trousers.  Each stable has its own colors, and every driver has his/her own distinctive color and design.

In Harriston we’re proud that this little postcard, originally supplied by the Wellington County Museum and Archives, has enjoyed such resurgence to fame 110 years after it made the rounds in the mail.

The Road Horse Association was formed in 1970 as an alternative use for standardbred trotters.  The drivers wear their registered colors, but in the 1940s style.  Back before automobiles, the horse was the fastest means of travel for doctors, preachers and farmers. Today in the show ring these “roadsters” are shown in two classes – with a four-wheeled wagon or buggy or with a two-wheeled bike or road cart, similar to harness racing sulkies.  Silent auction winner McKague was inducted into the Canadian Road Horse Hall of Fame in 2016.

At each race track during the summer there will be celebratory shows for the 250th.  Many fall fairs will also have displays.  The Harriston Agricultural Society is planning an exhibit for their September Fair, and the Historical Society will have memorabilia in the Arts Gallery during July and August.  Among the artifacts are the wine racing silks and cap of Dr. Hugh Simpson (1893-1948) who was a veterinarian in World War One.  When he returned to Harriston his hobby was raising and racing horses (all pacers).  He incorporated “Minto” into all their registered names.

Give a salute to horse racing’s 250th. Local standard bred tracks at Hanover, Grand River (Elora) and Clinton offer a full card on race nights.  The 2017 Ontario Show Horse Classic (road horses) will be held July 21st to 23rd at the Caledon Pan Am Equestrian Park in Palgrave. Yearly these road horse exhibitions are held at the Royal Winter Fair in Toronto.

Celebrate Canada’s 150th and Horse Racing’s 250th all in one evening’s entertainment.