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SC Rewind: London Turns 55

Published: May 14, 2016 8:44 am ET

Last Comment: May 20, 2016 6:06 pm ET | 14 Comment(s) | Jump to Comments

In this week's edition of Rewind Robert Smith takes readers back to 55 years ago when racing under the lights made its debut in Ontario at the London track. A number of old photos depicting the times are included. He is also asking for a bit of nostalgic participation by the reading audience.


An early scene from London's Western Fair Raceway

Fifty-five years ago this coming week, on the evening of May 17, 1961, night-time harness racing finally came to Ontario. After decades of debate along with political wrangling and posturing, the big decision was made. The group representing racing interests at London's Western Fair Raceway were granted permission to stage racing under the arc lights. It was indeed one "giant step" for Ontario harness racing. When Bill Herbert crossed the finish line a winner driving Adieu Herbert in the very first race, it was time to post the Official sign for another reason. This historic race meeting lasted a total of six weeks with racing held six nights per week.

In a headline story appearing in the Montreal Gazette issue of May 9, 1961, Dr. John Findley of Arnprior, Ont. stated the following:

"Night racing will mean bigger purses and that will attract better horses to make for better racing. In addition it may mean that we won't lose our top drivers to the U.S. Many have left the Province because our racing has remained at the country fair level far too long. The top drivers have gone elsewhere to earn their living; people such as Clint Hodgins, Bud Gilmour and Johnny Chapman are just a few. All are top men and would probably be living in Canada if we had good racing. There can't be good racing without night racing!"

Today as we look back to those days when night racing was prohibited in Ontario, it seems unbelievable that something so simple could have remained unchanged for all those years. I have assembled a few stories and old pictures from that bygone era to remind us of what it took to get where we are and to recall how far we have travelled.

In the fall of 1960, undoubtedly in preparation for the coming of night racing and more modern conditions, a milestone race meeting was held at that year's edition of the famous Western Fair. Each afternoon of the three-day meeting was well-attended, with excellent competition on display. For the first time in the Fair's long history, pari-mutuel wagering was introduced, replacing the old "book" method of betting which had existed forever.

The three-day session saw a total of $36,839 wagered with day one's handle at $10,968, day two was $12,314 and on the Saturday card the highest amount of $13,557 went through the wickets. By comparison the highest three-day betting total from the old system was recorded at approximately $7,600,thus a daily average of only about $2,500. Numerous horsemen who were participants at this three-day meeting returned the following year to be part of London's first ever action under the lights; many became regulars.

On the final afternoon the Invitational Pace was held with both heats annexed by the four-year-old mare Marjean Chief, owned by Jacob and Brown of Clinton, Ont. In the bike was the 18-year-old up and coming star Ron Feagan of Goderich, who was just beginning his meteoric rise in the sport. The highlight of the three days for those who were placing wagers was the win by Beatrice Hat on closing day when she paid $54.20 to win for a $2 investment. A popular winner of both of her heats was Argyle Florence handled by Duncan Campbell.

Midway through the first season of racing in 1961, a very special night of racing was held on June 8th, highlighted by the Ken MacDonald Memorial Pace for three-year-old pacers of both genders. The race was held to commemorate the passing of Mr. MacDonald, a horseman from Strathroy who had raced locally and whose family was well known in the sport. His brother Morris aka "Morrie", who became the first Canadian-born driver to win the Little Brown Jug in 1954, was on hand and did much of the arranging for the evening. Another brother Chester operated a tack store for many years.

While the horses in the event were all locally-owned, the drivers were at London at the invitation of the track management. The driver's list was made up of locally-born horsemen who had all gone further afield, namely to the U.S., and were returning this night to help start off night racing in their native Ontario. Invitees included (in alphabetical order) John Chapman, Bud Gilmour, Clint Hodgins, Joe Hodgins, Morrie MacDonald and Harold Wellwood. Also invited but unable to attend was Alix "Spider" Winger. A couple of other drivers also participated to round out the roster and are shown in an accompanying photo.

Despite the lack of cooperation from the weatherman a great evening of racing was presented as a talented group of three-year-old pacers went two heats in the $1,000 event. The colt's owners graciously allowed their horses to be driven by the visiting "celebrity" drivers in what may have been the first, or at least nearly the first time an event like this had ever been staged.

The winner based on her 2-1 finish was a nice Joe Dale filly named Dolly Dale B. from the barn of Floyd Belore of Salford, Ont. She was very capably driven by Clint Hodgins, who was a close friend of the Belore family. The second heat went to Argyle Albert, owned and driven by Duncan Campbell who finished last in the opening heat. Dolly Dale B. won 14 races as a three-year-old, earning just over $4,200 in 36 starts, many of the double heat variety.


Dolly Dale B. and owner Floyd Belore on the far left are joined by a group of well-known drivers who competed in the Ken MacDonald Memorial. From left: Harold Wellwood, Joe Hodgins, Morrie MacDonald, Duncan Campbell, Johnny Chapman, Ronnie Feagan, Bud Gilmour and Clint Hodgins. The two gentlemen in the back are unidentified.

As we reflect on the past 55 years of London's history, many great memories emerge. Back in the days when nearly everyone stabled at the track, a "family" atmosphere prevailed. Numerous people who later became famous in the sport started their careers here. Despite where their travels took them, London was always considered 'home'. One man whose roots have always been close by is current Chief Executive Officer Hugh Mitchell. He vividly recalls the early days at WFR when he accompanied his father Dr. Jim Mitchell, who was the first Track Veterinarian.

Hugh later worked as a groom with the stables of Bert Madill, Morrie MacDonald and Ron Topping. In a story written at the time of the track's 50th anniversary Mitchell reflected on the time spent as a youngster listening to the older folks speak."I just remember those very fond times, and they were good people. Salt of the earth people, with strong rural backgrounds and good values and principles."

Now officially known as The Raceway at Western Fair District, most things have changed over the past half century plus, but to those who have been around for 'a day or two', it remains the same friendly and great place it was way back when.

Three Generations Trivia?

With the London track now in its 55th year of operation as a Raceway, countless well known racing families have been part of the growth and many changes this venerable spot has experienced through the years and now decades. In a number of instances, competing horsemen from the inaugural year at London now have second and even third generations from their families now racing there.

I think it would be interesting to name some of them who have at least three generations of participation in any number of categories such as owner, trainer, driver, groom or other. To start the list I will suggest a couple of easy ones that come to mind; there should be countless more with the required three generations. In year one (1961) the inaugural meeting's leading driver was Duncan Campbell. He easily reaches three with sons Jack and Ray and grandchildren John, Jim, Robert and JoAnne's husband Wm. McLinchy. I'll do a second starting with Gordon Lawrence, sons Bill and Charles and grandson Donald. Have fun suggesting many more. [I have a hunch that there may even be an odd few "four timers", in fact I have at least one in mind.]

Picture Gallery


Long before night racing was introduced at London the historic track hosted top notch racing each year during the Western Fair week. A couple of photographs shown above capture the action including the large crowds that were present. Check out the cars in the infield.

 


Jack Campbell is shown receiving an award as leading driver following the conclusion of the 1964 fall meeting. Chuck Butler, a representative from Carling Breweries, does the honours. Jack was part of one of the pioneering families that raced at London long before 1961 and were elated when night racing finally arrived.

 


At various times during its long history the London track has held many special events. Pictured above is a "Powder Puff Derby" from probably around the late 1970's. The drivers from left to right are Judy Arthurs Hodges, Sharon Lester, Laurie Poulin, Pat (Belore) Harris, Marlene Harrison, Kathy Miller and Kelly Bako. The two people presenting are not identified, perhaps if anyone recognizes them, names can be added.

 


This venerable trio were an integral part of London's early years. This photo from 1964 was taken at the conclusion of that year's spring meeting with each one receiving an award. Drivers from left are Wes Coke, Neil McRann and "Jiggs" McFadden. The identity of the two presenters is not known.

 


When winter racing came to London on the afternoon of Jan. 18, 1964 C.T.A. President Allan Dickenson (second from right) was on hand. That day's Invitational Trot & Pace winner was Adios Yates, scoring in 2:15.1 for owner Don Finlayson of Portage LaPrairie, Manitoba. Imperial Lee was second with The Happy Wanderer third. Others in the photo (L-R): Groom unidentified, Hilda Coke, driver Wes Coke, trainer Cecil Coke, Mr. Dickenson and an unidentified gentleman. The cooler was compliments of Ehrlick Harness Horse Equipment of Toronto. The advent of winter racing came about in a very conservative and cautious fashion. The total purse outlay for the eight-race program that first day was just $2,600. The Invitation went for $460 while the other races ranged from $270 to $320. The times were unbelievably slow with the fastest mile being clocked in 2:15.1 by Adios Yates and the slowest in 2:20.4 by Scrapper Chief, both driven by 20-year-old Wes Coke of Petrolia.

May 20, 2016 - 6:06 pmWhat a force that Coke Stable

What a force that Coke Stable was. They got a lot of mileage out of a lot of well managed, successful horses.
Note the race surface in that picture. If you had your Horseshoer coming every 4 or 5 weeks you weren't getting all the $$$$ you should.

May 17, 2016 - 4:10 pmI am pretty sure the Kerr

Steve Jewitt SAID...

I am pretty sure the Kerr family could be 4 generation . There was Palmer , Terri,Randy , Randy Daughter and I am sure I met Palmer Dad years ago and he was a horsemen. Sonny

May 16, 2016 - 8:55 pmWes Coke suggested a three

Wes Coke suggested a three generation family all involved at London. Grandfather George Feagan, his son Keith Feagan and grandson Ron Feagan, a member of the 1961 driver colony at the age of 19.

May 16, 2016 - 12:03 pmThanks to everyone for

Thanks to everyone for submitting the three/four generation family names ;many I had not thought of for sure. It shows what a great family oriented sport we have .

Note to Jack Darling - Sorry about no prizes ,this is kind of a low budget operation. The best I can do is offer up another Rewind !!

I have a couple of Four generation possibilities. For them to be true I am guessing the eldest family member would have raced at London during the Western Fair era that preceded night racing by many years. In any event they are all for sure three generations strong.

James Wellwood, his son Harold,his grandsons William,Harold Jr."Buddy", Jim, and great granddaughter Paula

Elmer Fritz,his son Wm. "Bud",grandsons Brad,Dale,Terry,Randy,their sister Susan and great granddaughter Taylor (hope I didn't leave out too many)

Robert Walker Sr.,his son Allan, grandchildren,Robert,Larry,Paul,Jean and great granddaughters Vicki Gregg,Julie Walker,Jayne Walker

May 15, 2016 - 6:21 pmIm testing my memory here but

Jack Darling SAID...

Im testing my memory here but I think Cecil Pollard (Cabonga Bert)and Max Pollard were brothers and both were trainer drivers at WFR. Im wondering if Max was Kens father.

May 15, 2016 - 6:09 pmCecil Pollard-Ken

Jack Darling SAID...

Cecil Pollard-Ken Pollard-Courtney Pollard Is there a prize for this Robert ??? I could maybe come up with a couple more.

May 15, 2016 - 1:21 pmWm. H. Herbert, son Jack,

Wm. H. Herbert, son Jack, grandson Barry.
Ralph Coulter, son Paul, grandsons Steve and Scott.
Larry Fitzsimmons, daughters Lisa and Lesley, grandson Nicholas Steward.
Barney Hughes, children Wilfred, Vic, Raymond, Gary and Liz (Aiken} grandchildren Gerry, Rick & great grandchildren Rodney and Andrew Aiken.
Cecil Coke son Wes and grand daughter Keri Davies.

May 15, 2016 - 9:43 amHello Robert, Floyd

Bob Belore SAID...

Hello Robert,

Floyd Belore
Pat Belore (daughter)
Sons, Brian, Bob and Brent Belore
Bob's son, Phillip Belore

Three racing generations of the Floyd Belore family at Western Fair.

Sincerely,
Yvonne Belore

May 14, 2016 - 10:41 pmMiller Wray-Jack,Pete,Joanne

Jack Darling SAID...

Miller Wray-Jack,Pete,Joanne Wray-Scott Wray

May 14, 2016 - 5:54 pmWilfred Duford, Dennis

Wilfred Duford, Dennis Duford, Ashley Duford.
Lorne Johnston, Ross Johnston, Joe Johnston.

May 14, 2016 - 5:13 pmGreat stuff as usual

Great stuff as usual Robert.
Being at Western Fair Grounds since approx. 1960 (I can remember training as the infield lighting system was installed) I was there or close by for most of those pictures and many, many more. Us race kid fanatics could not get close enough to the Winners Circle pushing our way along that front guard rail. Many nights literally pushing. I swear no one got their picture taken more than Levi McFadden's young fella Ted.

I know the treasures you pass on create a lot of good memories for a lot of us who like the cliché "Back in the day"

May 14, 2016 - 5:10 pmFrom Dundalk and Walkerton

From Dundalk and Walkerton area: Dr. Vern H Lougheed, Doug Lougheed, John Lougheed and Kurtis Lougheed.
Back in the early days there was always a car full leaving Dundalk corner at 4pm. If you wanted to go be on time. Jim Love could not miss the Daily Double.

John Lougheed

May 14, 2016 - 12:31 pmNorm Hardy, son Ken Hardy,

Jack Darling SAID...

Norm Hardy, son Ken Hardy, grandson Glen Hardy.
Palmer Kerr, son Randy Kerr, granddaughter Lindsey Kerr
Jack Morrissey, Dave Morrissey son, Dan Morrissey grandson

May 14, 2016 - 9:27 amMy first trip to Western Fair

My first trip to Western Fair Raceway would have come in the mid-Sixties and I'm still there on a weekly basis. I would have been a lad of three when night racing started. The first three generation family that came immediately to mind would be Hugh, Ray and Ray McLean Jr. I would guess that there are three generations of the Henry and Fritz families that have competed at the Raceway and while not regulars, I know I've watched three generations of Waples drive at Western Fair.


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