In this week's 'Rewind,' Robert Smith has tapped into the harness racing archives to take a look back to 1960; an even 60 years ago. His piece recalls how different the sport was back then and includes a number of old photographs and happenings from a track that was quite popular at that time. Today's edition is the first in a series of 1960 memories with others to follow in future Rewinds.
Sixty years ago the sport of harness racing was flourishing in the Province of Quebec. It was well beyond all other areas in the Dominion and virtually the equal of anywhere that racing was held. Racing under the lights, which had yet to be introduced in Ontario, was already beginning its third decade in La Belle Province. In addition to the two large Raceways in Montreal -- Blue Bonnets and Richelieu Park -- several more extended race meetings were held annually. Places like Quebec City, Three Rivers, Sherbrooke and Jonquiere offered up five straight months of regular racing with action several nights a week. Also prominent on that list was Connaught Park, the subject of this week's story.
Located at Aylmer, Quebec just across the river from Ottawa and but a few minutes from downtown, Connaught Park was in its eighth year of hosting harness racing following a long and storied history with the thoroughbreds. Opening day 1960 was on May 14. A card of nine races welcomed patrons to the new season that would run all the way through to October 29. The honour of winning the first event of the season went to Atomic Carl, driven to victory by Allan Pacey in a rather sluggish 2:19. An Invitation Trot was won by Safety Man The Second (Omar Knight) and the companion Pace for $500 went to Maestro Pick in rein to Harry Zeron. It was a cast that would meet each other many times throughout the long season.
Fans that attended racing here on a regular basis were pretty serious about their involvement and were most often partial toward the local favourites, meaning mainly those horses and horsemen from the Ottawa Valley. While horsepeople came from many areas to compete here, the "locals" held special sway. One rivalry that started early and lasted throughout the season involved the Curran brothers, Ross and Neil from Smiths Falls. Their driving tussles that usually occurred several times on most cards had the local racing scribes wondering if there had ever been any better competition between two siblings.
The Curran brothers were very popular horsemen at Connaught Park in its heyday. They were entered in several races each night throughout the 1960 season.
Another sort of novelty started on opening day and lasted all summer and fall long. Horses with quirky names have always been of interest but when a 12-year-old gelding named Divorce won a race on opening day it was the start of a five-month fascination every time this horse went postward for owner Elzear LaFleur of Buckingham, P.Q. In reality it made for a lot of fun reading in the Ottawa paper, but the horse won just that one race all season.
The 1960 season reached a new high on Labour Day weekend when the Zone 3 Ottawa Valley Futurity was held. It was the top race of the season for the locals and traditionally a keenly contested one. This big event drew a crowd of almost 6,000 people who set a new all-time high in wagering when $106,184 went through the mutuels. It was the first time ever that the mutuels topped the $ 100,000 mark. A write up in the Ottawa Citizen termed the night "The most exciting night the track has ever known. The race stirred tremendous interest throughout the valley."
A field of 11 were entered in this year's edition which carried a hefty purse of $5,500. In the opener the winner was Leny Boy owned by Martial LeBlanc of Smith Falls and driven by Neil Curran followed by Mr. O'Banion (Ross Curran) from the Clouthier Stable of Pembroke and third was another Clouthier entry Susan M with Keith Waples up.
In the second heat Brenda Lee was the victor with Bill Elliott driving for the Madawaska Stable from Arnprior. Second was Leny Boy (N. Curran) and third again was Susan M (K. Waples). By virtue of his two-heat standing Leny Boy was the overall winner. A trophy and a silver tray was presented by C.T.A. president Mr. Hugh Proudfoot to Mr. Leblanc, the owner of Leny Boy. A cooler was also presented to winning driver Neil Curran by Dr. John Findley. Other C.T.A. directors on hand were Claire Smith, chairman of Zone 3, as well as John Thompson and Bert Soper.
Above is a list of previous winners of the Ottawa Valley Futurity which started in 1950 and was raced at various local ovals as shown. Also a recap of the 1960 earnings by starter. (Picture and other data courtesy of The Ottawa Citizen)
On October 29 the 1960 season came to a close. It was a record year in many categories as countless records were set in attendance, mutuel handle and purses paid to the horse owners. Often plagued by bad weather in past years, only three cards were called off due to weather difficulties throughout the 5-1/2 month season. After 69 consecutive programs were completed the first rain out occurred on September 12. On the racing scene the action on getaway night looked a lot like many others throughout the long season as Ross Curran made three more trips to the winner's circle. This hat trick effort helped to solidify his dash winning title with brother Neil in second spot.
Connaught Park enjoyed its finest season to date in 1960. In the betting statistics the track's overall handle exceeded the $7 million mark for the first time ever. The quality of racing resulted in larger crowds than ever seen before at this track. Track owner Tommy Gorman along with his sons Frank (38) and Joe (32) were extremely pleased with the progress his track had made in recent years. Critics of his operation said that he couldn't make it work but he said this season had proven them wrong. Gorman, the former hockey great, sports promoter and now harness racing impresario said "even the bankers talk to me now!"
A list of leading drivers and owners mid way through the 1960 season (Courtesy of Ottawa Citizen)
ODDS AND ENDS FROM CONNAUGHT - 1960
No claiming races back then. All horses that changed owners were dealt by "Horse traders"
Closed circuit TV was in use under the stands which was a bit ahead of its time as well as air conditioning for the fans comfort
A sad day occurred in late June when veteran horseman and then racing official Eph L'Heureux passed away suddenly at the track. Originally from St. Boniface, Manitoba, he had been a leading horseman at one time followed by his son Marcel
A 17-year-old named Wes Coke scored his first career driving victory here on Oct. 17 while driving Dr. G Chief owned by Clarence Lockhart of Collingwood. His time of 2:10.1 was the evening's fastest
One of the sport's most accomplished female drivers, Bobbe Huntress was a frequent and successful competitor this season stabled at the track. She made her debut at this track back in 1955 and won in her first appearance on the track.
A number of stables came from quite a distance from home to race here but Wilf Duford may have travelled the furthest from Nipawin, Sask. His Rocky Senator was often in the weekly Invitations
A few drivers from that season competing at C.P. still with us would include Ross and Neil Curran, Keith Waples, Bud Fritz, Wes Coke, Dr. Peter Johnston, Peter Thibaudeau (and probably more that I may have omitted). I suspect Carman Hie was there as well but maybe someone can confirm.
Quote For The Week: "Hard work is hard but hard work works."
Where Is It?
Can you correctly identify the location where this great old photo was taken? The rest of the cast may be difficult but give it a try if you wish. (Hoof Beats photo)
Who Is It?
Can you put a name on this person from days gone by? Stay tuned to see the correct answers posted during the coming week. (Hoof Beats photo)