By David Wencer, originally published November 19, 2009
Little known racetracks that once doted our city
Horse racing has a longer and more widespread connection with Toronto than one might first expect. Since the closing of Greenwood Raceway in the 1990s, horseracing within Toronto’s boundaries has been confined to Rexdale’s Woodbine Racetrack, but the sport has seen action in many other Toronto neighbourhoods.
In the early days of the nineteenth century, horses in Upper Canada were bred primarily to work. Although races were periodically held, the lack of adequate racehorses meant that the horses involved were often of inferior quality. A typical race might only have two entries, as exemplified by a piece of ephemera in the Toronto Reference Library advertising the “Parliamentary Stake” which was contested by a rare Canadian thoroughbred and an imported Scotch Hunter.
The first known racetrack in Toronto was not an oval but a straight track, described by Dr. Henry Scadding as being on the Toronto Island, back when it was still connected to the mainland: “Here races were periodically held ; and we have been assured, by an eye-witness, that twelve fine horses at a time had been seen by him engaged in the contest of speed.” At the time, there was no central organizational structure governing local horseracing, and it is not known with what frequency these races were held.
The organization of races emerged in the 1830s. Writing in 1923, historian Jesse Edgar Middleton traces the 1837 founding of the Upper Canada Turf Club to a series of races on a course on Garrison Common, held by the military stationed at Fort York. The Turf Club held its first formal racing season in September of 1837 at the Simcoe Chase Course on the property of John Scarlett. Scarlett’s estate, Runnymede, was near the Humber Valley, near Dundas Street and Weston Road.
Over the next few decades, the Turf Club held events at several racecourses in the Toronto area; many of these courses were on private property owned by Turf Club members. William Henry Boulton had the Union Course (sometimes known as the St. Leger course) laid out on the Grange property, situated between Spadina and McCaul Streets, just south of College. The Turf Club held races here in the late 1840s. As with many of the early courses, the course evidently disappeared before the advent of photography, and most of the property was turned into a residential development, the site of today’s Cecil Street (writing in 1894, John Ross Robertson claims that some of this track’s spectator stand was still in existence).
As Toronto grew, so did the interest in horse racing. The next tracks included Maitland’s, named for Turf Club secretary John Maitland, situated east of the Don near Cherry Street, and the Toronto Driving Park, located just north of Queen near Lisgar. Another track, the Newmarket Course near Danforth and Coxwell, was owned by Charles Gates and would go on to host the Queen’s Plate in 1868.
The emergence of the Queen’s Plate in 1860 came about as a means to improve horse racing in Ontario. Although horseracing was growing in popularity, Upper Canada still lacked adequate breeding stock. It was hoped that securing a sizeable purse – specifically one with royal prestige – would encourage breeders from the United States or Great Britain to bring quality horses to Canada.
Thus, in 1859, the Toronto Turf Club petitioned Governor General Edmund Walker Head for an annual horse racing prize to be awarded by Queen Victoria. Victoria granted a plate of 50 guineas, and the Queen’s Plate was first held the following June.
The first four Plates were held at the Carleton Racecourse, which had been laid out on W.C. Keele’s property a few years earlier, just southwest of today’s Annette and Keele streets. By the mid-1860s, the event began floating around southern Ontario, sometimes stopping in Toronto but also visiting other communities such as Guelph, Barrie, Hamilton, and even Ottawa.
The Plate eventually settled in permanently at Greenwood Racetrack in 1883, then known as Woodbine Park, which had opened in 1874. Greenwood had established itself as a racetrack by the turn of the 20th Century, but it was hardly the last new track in Toronto prior to today’s Woodbine.
The Canadian National Exhibition included harness racing on its grounds in the late 19th Century, holding its last official race in the 1930s.
Charles Leslie Denison installed a track in his property in Brockton, which, after his death, opened to the public as Dufferin Racetrack in 1907. Five years later saw the opening of the short-lived Hillcrest track at Bathurst & Davenport. In the late 1910s, Thorncliffe opened in the Don Valley, and went on to host several prestigious races including the Prince of Wales Stakes. In 1924, with Greenwood, Dufferin & Thorncliffe all successful, Long Branch Race Track opened in today’s Etobicoke. Horse racing in Toronto was enjoying a golden age of popularity, dominating the summer sports pages of the city’s newspapers, with four tracks in operation. The tracks remained both popular and financially successful through to the 1950s when Dufferin, Thorncliffe and Long Branch were all bought out and horse racing in Toronto shifted from privately-owned tracks to the exclusive ownership of the Ontario Jockey Club, now known as the Woodbine Entertainment Group.
The sites of some of Toronto’s lost racetracks have been marked with plaques or historical street names, but the vast majority are not. Horseracing in the city today is confined to Etobicoke’s Woodbine Raceway, with little to suggest the rich history of horseracing that Toronto enjoys, or the many racetracks which the city has seen.