By David Wencer, originally published June 15, 2010
Horse race’s humble beginnings began in the Junction
A one hundred and fifty year-old tradition began in 1860, when the first Queen’s Plate took place on what was then a quiet estate near the Toronto suburb of Carlton (sometimes spelled “Carleton”).
In the 1850s, horseracing was still in its infancy in southern Ontario. There were very few thoroughbreds in Upper Canada at this time, meaning that the bulk of the racing stock was of inferior quality. The result was an industry lacking in both high-quality races and in credibility.
A solution was sought by the Toronto Turf Club, which had established itself as the Toronto area’s chief horseracing concern in the 1840s. Believing that a race with royal import would give the industry a boost and improve the level of competition, the Toronto Turf Club petitioned Governor General Edmund Walker Head in April of 1859, requesting an annual royal horseracing prize from Queen Victoria. On July 18, the response came from the Duke of Newcastle that Victoria had granted a plate in the value of 50 guineas.
That same year, the Turf Club established its headquarters at what would later become the Junction, but what was then the private estate of William Conway Keele. Keele was an English-born lawyer who lived on a large estate which he called “Glenside,” northwest of today’s Bloor and Keele Streets, and extending to the approximate locations of today’s Dundas Street and Evelyn Avenue to the north and west, respectively. Glenside featured several buildings over the years, including the primary residence on the west side of Keele, near where Humberside Avenue is today.
In 1857, the Keeles opened the Carleton Race Course on their property. Owing to the brevity of its existence no photos of the racetrack are known to exist, and descriptions are few. Sources indicate the actual course to be over a mile in length, with the straightaways in the approximate locations of today’s High Park and Pacific Avenues, with Glenlake and Annette Street marking the bends. The track’s amenities included three sets of low wooden stands as well as refreshment booths, paddocks, and jockey’s weighing rooms. It was named after the nearby Village of Carlton, centred near where Old Weston Road and Davenport meet today.
In June of 1860, the Carleton Race Course played host to the Toronto Turf Club’s spring races, which included the inaugural running of the Queen’s Plate, open to all horses bred in Upper Canada which had never before won public money. As the Queen’s Plate was then a new phenomenon, the event had not yet earned the level of prestige it enjoys today, despite the royal endorsement. Advertisements in the Toronto Globe refer to the event as the “Carleton Races,” including the Plate amongst the other races which the Turf Club ran at Carleton between the 27th and 29th of June.
Records suggest that the Queen’s Plate was the first event of the first day, with each day featuring three distinct races. While three races over an afternoon may seem scant by today’s standards, the Queen’s Plate was initially decided by three one-mile heats, as opposed to today, when the race’s length is standardized at a mile and a quarter.
Sources report the attendance for the 1860 Plate as being somewhere between 2,000 and 4,000, although betting was reportedly not heavy. This may be due to the youth of the sport in Upper Canada – the horses, jockeys, owners and trainers were all relatively unknown to the public. It seems unlikely that the early Torontonians were shy about gambling, as accounts in one year tell of dice-playing at the track in between races.
For the well-to-do of Toronto, the trip to the Carleton Race Course was likely made by carriage along Dundas Street. For others, the Grand Trunk offered special trains on all three days of racing between Toronto’s Union Station and Carleton Station. A round-trip fare for the day cost twenty-five cents, and judging by the anticipated arrival times, the trip took roughly 35 minutes each way.
There were eight horses entered in the 1860 Plate. The first heat was won by a horse named Bob Marshall, which beat Don Juan by a length. According to the Toronto Globe one of the horses, Paris, bolted at the start, ran too close to the stand, and bucked his jockey, a man originally credited as Nelson Littlefield but now believed to be his more famous brother Charles. Littlefield was evidently unhurt after his fall, for he rode in the remaining two heats – aboard Don Juan. The second heat, which was held a mere twenty minutes after the first, was described as an exciting race between Wild Irishman and Don Juan, with Don Juan emerging victorious with his new jockey. Don Juan proceeded to beat Bob Marshall by half a length in the third heat, making Don Juan and Littlefield the first Queen’s Plate victors.
The state of local horseracing at the time can be partially gleaned by the other two races held that day. The Toronto Purse, with a prize of $200, featured only two entries, and the County Purse, with a prize of $75, featured only one. To make the County Purse a contest, one of the losing entries in the Queen’s Plate, Tom Sayers, was summarily entered.
Overall, the 1860 Plate must have been deemed a success as the Carleton Race Course played host to the event for the next three years, generally attracting more people on the day of the Plate itself than on the other days of racing.
Results were not instantaneous, and it took some time for the overall quality of Canadian horseracing to improve. While the Plate today is reserved for 3 year-old thoroughbreds, the early years made no allowances for age; indeed the winner in 1861 was Wild Irishman, an 8 year-old who had competed unsuccessfully the year before. The following year’s winner, Palermo, was not even a thoroughbred. In 1863, the last year the race was run at Carleton, the initial winner, Willie Wonder, was subsequently disqualified after it was revealed that the horse had previously won public money.
For diplomatic reasons, 1864 saw the Queen’s Plate begin a policy of changing venues annually. For the next two decades the event floated around Southern Ontario, being run at tracks in, amongst other towns, Guelph, Barrie, Hamilton and Ottawa. This practice continued until the race was taken over by the Ontario Jockey Club and permanently set at Woodbine.
Following the death of William Conway Keele in 1872 the slow process of dividing up the family estate began. Much of the property came into the hands of his youngest son, Charles, who sold a significant portion of the land, including the racetrack, to developer Daniel Webster Clendenan, who turned the land into what became the Village of West Toronto Junction. Charles erected a new main residence at Glenside in the early 1880s which still stands today, a reminder of the Keele family’s time in the area. When originally built this home had a sizeable lawn, but subsequent development required some creative thinking by Toronto’s planners. Not wanting to waste a perfectly serviceable building, the structure was modified so that the original rear of the building became the new front on May Street (now Mavety). It has also since been split into two homes, 113 and 115 Mavety, and is easily recognized for being the only semi-detached building in a stretch of otherwise detached houses. Those who can see the rear of the building will note that some features, particularly the upper portions with their bargeboards, still resemble the front of a Victorian home.
In 1974, a plaque commemorating the first Queen’s Plate was unveiled at Woodbine and installed in Oakville where the winner, Don Juan, was foaled. In today’s Toronto, however, there is little to suggest the humble beginnings of one of the city’s grandest traditions, North America’s oldest thoroughbred horse race.