Sixty Years Of Woodbine Racetrack

Woodbine main entrance

Sixty years young. I say that because I will be turning sixty this year. My favourite place in the world during these sixty years, my happy place so to speak, is Woodbine Racetrack in Toronto. This year Woodbine will turn sixty. Sixty years of world class racing, featuring world class horses at a world class facility.

Woodbine was built by the Ontario Jockey Club under the leadership of Canada’s foremost thoroughbred enthusiast E.P. Taylor. Taylor had a vision to bring Canadian racing away from the haphazard, parochial way it had been operating in the previous years before his tenure. He wanted Canada to become a major country in the sport, but the existing infrastructure for racing in his home land was doomed for failure.

His vision was to amalgamate all of the existing area tracks in southern Ontario, seven in total, and pare them down to three. He closed down the tracks which were losing money and were too costly to improve upon. His due diligence indicated that the existing Woodbine in the eastern end of Toronto and the lovely Fort Erie race track, on the Canada/US border, were adequate for a face lift and could continue as profitable racing venues. Taylor then was able to use additional money by selling off the land on which the five tracks to be closed down was located.

A new state of the art venue would be needed to catapult Canada to new levels of world class racing. Taylor invested the OJC available funds, which included the extra cash from the five land sales, in a sprawling acreage in the borough of Etobicoke in the western end of Toronto. These seven hundred and twenty acres of real estate became the location for the final phase of his plan.

Four years of construction followed the three previous years of mergers and acquisitions until that historical day of June 12, 1956 when Ontario Premier Lesley Frost cut the ceremonial ribbon along the finish line of the fabulous new Woodbine. In just seven short years E.P. Taylor had transformed Canadian racing.

The first race on the new track was won by Landscape, campaigned by none other than E.P. Taylor’s Windfields Farm stable, and ridden by Avelino Gomez. The new era of racing in “The Great White North” had arrived. New Woodbine came resplendent with five levels of seating, restaurants overlooking the track for patrons of varying financial status, a lush and a beautiful paddock behind the grandstand where fans could see the stars of the show up close as they prepare for the next race. The amenities were first class and no stone was unturned to provide fans every opportunity to enjoy their “Day at the Races”.

The view from the grandstand was enhanced with splendid lakes and fountains in the infield and a very visible, but unobtrusive, scoreboard. This scoreboard has evolved over the years to encompass modern technology and now shows the replays in Hi-Definition as well as close up shots of the horses and riders during the post parade.

Everything was state of the art, including the stable area for the horses and their human helpers. There were spacious and well constructed barns for close to two thousand horses. Ample and clean housing for stable hands with a twenty-four hour cafeteria serving hot meals, creating a community within the grounds, and was the best of its kind at any track in North America at the time.

New Woodbine came complete with four tracks. The main track consisted of a one mile dirt surface oval, quite the normal track type in North America. There were two grass courses, one of which was seven furlongs in length situated inside the main dirt course. There was an additional grass course which ran parallel with the main track on the outside along the back straight, continuing around the far turn and then crossed over the dirt course to join the inner grass course at the top of the home straight. This configuration was a new and bold move by the Ontario Jockey Club to allow for more races on a grass surface and at a wider variation of distances.

Long straight chutes were constructed at the head of the main track back stretch and the outside turf course in order to have races of at least seven furlongs (main track) and nine furlongs for grass racing. These chutes provided an even broader scope of distance variety for horsemen and fans to enjoy. The fourth track is a one mile dirt training track located beyond the backstretch of the three used for competition. This track was important to horsemen trying to get their charges ready for the races, and avoiding overcrowding during morning training sessions. The training track was closer to the stabling area and is beyond the view from most of the main grandstand seats. This track is still in use today.

From the first year of existence to the present day Woodbine has had its share of stars, both equine and human, call the track home. Beloved jockey Avelino Gomez became the first of long line of superior jockeys to wow the patrons of Woodbine. Gomez was an energetic Cuban born athlete who became a Canadian citizen, and was colourful and entertaining. His patented flying leap when he dismounted his ride in the winner’s circle after he had won a big stakes race, and his big broad smile was his signatures to his legion of fans. Such dismounts have been copied around the world by many younger generations of world class jockeys, most notably the great Frankie Dettori.

Gomez won many of the prestigious races on the Woodbine tracks including the Queen’s Plate four times, the Breeder’s Stakes three times, the Coronation Futurity five times, the Canadian Oaks four times and many more. He rode for all the top trainers and stables based at Woodbine. Sadly, during the running of the 1980 Canadian Oaks Avelino Gomez died from injuries sustained when he and his mount Swisskin were involved in a three horse accident along the backstretch. A life sized statue of the great jockey overlooks the lush paddock at Woodbine, while the Avelino Gomez Memorial Award is presented annually to the rider who made the most significant contribution to Canadian racing during the year, in his honour.

Woodbine is not immune to tragedy. Racing is a dangerous sport for both horse and jockey. Travelling at close to forty miles an hour, in tight quarters balanced aboard an eleven hundred pound animal with nothing but stirrups for your feet and reigns to hold, jockeys put their lives on the line in every race. The symmetry between horse and rider is poetry in motion and one of the grandest sights in all sports.

Factor in the inherent dangers, and it all becomes more enticing to watch and more thrilling to behold. However when tragedy does strike, which is very infrequent and not as common as some would lead the public to believe, it does so with a shock value that runs deep. Generally it is the horse that is worse off than the rider, but that does not make it any easier to accept. The percentage of accidents at all race tracks is very low, and Woodbine is a leader in the sport in implementing as safe a venue as any other in the world.

There have been many other jockeys who had their beginnings at Woodbine and gone on to achieve success around the world. Sandy Hawley is one. Born and raised only thirty miles east of Toronto in Whitby Ontario, Hawley became one of if not the most accomplish jockeys of his generation. He was leading Woodbine jockey thirteen times, led all of Canada nine times and all of North America four times. In 1973 Sandy became the first jockey in history to win more than five hundred races in a single year and was named as the winner of the Lou Marsh Award as Canada’s top male athlete of the year.

Sandy Hawley won so many prestigious races around the world that the limited space of this article cannot fully list. The highlights include four Queen’s Plates and eight Canadian Oaks, which includes an unprecedented five consecutive victories. Hawley won two Canadian Internationals, two Washington D.C. Internationals, and other world class races such as the Hollywood Gold Cup, Whitney Handicap, United Nations Handicap, Spinster Stakes, Prince of Wales Stakes, Coronation Futurity, the Breeder’s Stakes and many more. Several of these he won on multiple occasions.

Since he hung his tack up for retirement, Sandy has been employed at Woodbine in a variety of ambassadorial roles. His friendly and very approachable personality offers racing fans a chance to speak with a living legend and one of the greatest athletes Canada has ever produced. When in conversation with him, one is struck by the down to earth nature of Sandy Hawley and his genuine easy going manner. He is a class act. He is a member in both the Canadian and US racing Hall of Fame, the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame and the Order of Canada.

World famous jockeys from around the world have come to Woodbine to compete in the most prestigious races the track offers every year. Legends such as Lester Piggott, Bill Shoemaker, Yves St. Martin, Bill Hartack, Gary Stevens, Pat Day, Pat Eddery, Chris McCarron, Freddie Head, Mike Smith, Jean Cruguet, Angel Cordero jr., Canada’s own Johnny Longden, and current stars Frankie Dettori and Ryan Moore have all come to Woodbine to enhance their careers with victories at Woodbine.

Outstanding jockeys such as Jeffery Fell, Brian Swatuk, Robin Platts, “Hustlin” Hugo Dittfach, Irwin Driedger, Chantal Sutherland, Don Seymour, Larry Attard, Jim Fitzsimmons, Chris Rogers and Don McBeth have all called Woodbine home for long stretches in their riding careers. Ron Turcotte is another. Turcotte is famous as the regular rider of legendary horse Secretariat, but he is also well known as the first rider of Canada’s greatest equine legend Northern Dancer.

The jockeys that have competed at Woodbine are among the elite of the racing world. However the real stars of the show are the horses themselves. Woodbine has hosted some of the greatest equine legends ever seen during the past sixty years. I have already mentioned Northern Dancer who won the 1964 Queen’s Plate after he conquered the first two Triple Crown races in the US, the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes. Northern Dancer’s career was the stuff of legends. Following his historic racing career, Canada’s pride and joy became the greatest stallion of the twentieth century worldwide. He sired three winners of the greatest and most prestigious race in the world, the Derby Stakes at Epsom in England. His name is synonymous to breeders of the finest thoroughbreds the world over.

Another famous thoroughbred to grace Woodbine was “Big Red”, the one and only Secretariat. Secretariat completed his Hall of Fame racing career in the Canadian International at Woodbine in 1973. His owner Penny Tweedy had chosen this race to be the swan’s song of Secretariat’s career to honour the horse’s trainer Lucien Lauren and jockey Ron Turcotte who were both Canadian. While it was disappointing that Turcotte could not ride Big Red in the race due to a suspension for a minor infraction at another track, Secretariat did not disappoint the over flowing crowd that day when he won the International by a commanding ten lengths.

Woodbine has seen so many great horses. The list is extensive, but here are a few to save space. Dahlia, Snow Knight, A.P. Indy, Victoria Park, Singspiel, Sky Classic, George Royal, Wise Dan, Skip Away, Dance Smartly, Glorious Song, With Approval, Izvestia, Peteski, Prized, Chief Bearheart, All Along, Wando, Sunny’s Halo, Macho Uno, Awesome Again, Play The King, Soaring Free, Eternal Search, Bessarabian, L’Enjoleur, Kennedy Road, Nearctic, Deputy Minister, La Prevoyante, Frost King, Overskate, Viceregal, Carotene, Fanfreluche, L’Alezane, Urban Sea, Khariyda, Square Angel, and many more. The importance of each is in no particular order.

This is only a partial list. These horses have all won championships either in Canada or other top class racing countries around the world. Woodbine has seen so many greats, and been the home to so many greats that competed on the grass or main tracks. The horses have changed in name and appearance throughout Woodbine’s history, and so too has the main track and the grass courses undergone significant and very noticeable changes over Woodbine’s sixty years. The first major change took place in 1994.

The name Woodbine had been used since 1874. Prior to the existence of today’s Woodbine, the original Woodbine was located in the eastern end of the city along the Lake Ontario shores at the corner of Kingston Road and Queen Street. This facility was completely renovated in time for the 1963 racing season and renamed Greenwood Raceway. Both Thoroughbred and Standardbred (harness racing) were conducted on the grounds. Due to rising costs and a noticeable decline in popularity for both types of horse racing, Greenwood was closed down at the end of 1993, thirty-three years after its transformation.

A new venue would be needed to house the Standardbreds for Ontario racing. There was still Mohawk Raceway in Cambellville, west of Toronto for some OJC harness racing, but nothing closer to the large population in and around Toronto. The OJC then came up with a plan to renovate Woodbine, the “New” moniker had been dropped in 1963, to house both racing disciplines. The changes brought Woodbine to new levels in world status.

The inner turf course was transformed into a harness racing surface of crushed limestone which is far more conducive for the horses to pull the wheeled buggies and the driver around on. However, the big change was made for the turf course for the Thoroughbreds. By utilizing the existing outer grass course along the back straight the designers then extended the course to go completely around the main dirt oval and seven furlong chute to the back stretch, and all the way down past the finish line directly in front of the grandstand.

Not done there, the course then went beyond the main track clubhouse turn and took an unusual, for North American tracks, forty-five degree left turn to go beyond the large auditorium on the east end that houses the annual yearling sales, and rejoined the top end of the grass track at the head of the long chute. The entire track now became one and one half miles in length. To this day there is no other grass course in North America with this configuration or length.

The layout was named the E.P. Taylor Turf Course in honour of the man who spearheaded the building of Woodbine and the change in Canadian racing. This new grass course has become the envy of race tracks around the world.

Now Woodbine became a year round facility. Thoroughbreds do not race in Canadian winters. The chance of ice forming on a track in this climate is too risky for a horse at full gallop. However harness racing is conducted during the coldest months of the year due to the construction of the track and the gait in which pacers or trotters perform. During the summer months when the harness races are not at Mohawk, Woodbine is capable of holding two full cards of racing a day. Thoroughbreds in the afternoon and harness racing in the evening has become a common occurrence.

The main Thoroughbred oval saw a radical change in 2007. Woodbine decided that a new synthetic surface called “Polytrack” would be installed to replace traditional dirt as the main surface for the one mile Thoroughbred racing oval. This decision has brought both praise and disdain from all associated with the Thoroughbred industry.

At the time there was a public outcry pertaining to a sudden rash of fatal injuries sustained by horses at major tracks around North America. There had been some horrific accidents on live national television of Breeder’s Cup races and Triple Crown races which only served to fuel the controversy. The most common reason was perceived to be the dirt tracks. Too hard on the bones and joints screamed the naysayers.

Developments in synthetic racing surfaces had been ongoing for some time. California had mandated that all the tracks in the state were to remove dirt tracks and install any one of several available synthetic options. Other tracks investigated the possibility of doing likewise.

Today Woodbine has ceased the use of “Polytrack” and has replaced the main track surface with another synthetic material called “Tapeta”. This track type looks more like regular dirt and it does have a more dirt like feel to it. Woodbine has always, and still is, one of the leaders in racetrack safety. Its consistent safety accreditation is in the highest of all tracks operating in North America.

Throughout the sixty year history, Woodbine has evolved with the times. Beginning with the year 2000, Woodbine in partnership with the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Commission, has been the site of a large casino on the main floor of the grandstand. This symbiotic relationship has had its ups and downs, most notable of which was the cancellation of the horseman’s percentage of the profits to go into purse money for many of the races. There is a plan currently in the works to expand the casino.

The north east corner of the massive parking lot has been the site of the test drives seen on the popular TV show Motoring Canada. There are seminars for horse players, tours of the backstretch stables, meet and greets with some of the legends in racing periodically scheduled for fans. Woodbine is also the home of the Canadian Racing Hall of Fame, which honours the horses and people from both Thoroughbred and Standardbred racing.

Woodbine has also recently released a plan to build a 5,000 seat concert theatre adjacent to the main grandstand, which is exciting and could generate huge revenue for the Woodbine Entertainment Group. The new, shortened to the commonly referred WEG, parent company has been in use since 2001 when the Ontario Jockey Club became WEG.

This year aside from the new Tapeta surface for the main oval track, Woodbine will institute right handed, or clockwise, racing on the E.P. Taylor turf course. The unique configuration of the course lends itself easily to such races and also has the benefit of using a section of the track that does not get much use for left turn or counter-clockwise racing. Right turn racing will be unique to North American race fans, but has been used throughout the long history of racing around the world. Many of the prestigious races such as the Epsom Derby, Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, Ascot Gold Cup etc are run in this direction. Horsemen are excited to try this, and the horses themselves will likely enjoy the variety.

Sixty years of fun and excitement containing appearances from some of the biggest names in the sport. Woodbine has been visited by royalty on many occasions, especially for the Queen’s Plate. Woodbine has played host to the 1976 Paralympics as the opening venue. In August of 1988, Woodbine hosted the world renown Arlington Million Stakes races while Arlington Racetrack was being rebuilt following a devastating fire the previous year. In 1996, Woodbine was the site for the Breeder’s Cup championships. It is the only time the Breeder’s Cup has been run outside of the United States.

Woodbine Race Track is an exciting and highly enjoyable place to be. With new venues on the horizon, and a standard of excellence built from sixty years of entertaining, my happy place is as fresh and vibrant as the day it first opened.

So if you decide to have a great day of fun, go to Woodbine on Rexdale Blvd in Etobicoke, park for free, and be greeted by Northern Dancer’s life sized statue as you enter the main doors. Entry is free as well. Enjoy the races, marvel at the speed and nobility of the horses, and soak up the traditions. The food is excellent, and the hospitality is first class.

Go ahead, indulge yourself. You won’t be disappointed.

(Photos courtesy of Woodbine Race Track)

Woodbine grandstand

One comment

  • I began going to Woodbine with my father while it was being constructed. As a child my brother John and I spent most of our Saturdays at Woodbine. During the winter our family skated on the center field ponds. For many summers I worked as a hot walker, valet parking attendant and mutual clerk.
    I watched Northern Dancer win the Queens Plate from the Grandstand roof outside of the allowed area. I was terrified I would be blown off. so laid down for most of the race. Sunny Collins stood right on the edge the whole time.
    I loved going to the jockey’s room and getting a treat. Avelino Gomez was always my favourite when I was young , then Sandy Hawley. I watched Sandy Hawley ride Regal Embrace to victory in the plate and drank a bottle of champagne with Mr Taylor at the back of the Trustees lounge while everyone searched for Mr Taylor. It was the first time we had ever meant. He was surprised because he said he knew most of my brothers and sisters. I explained that I didn’t go to the Trustees lounge often, that I preferred the backstretch. Afterwards he invited me to the party at the barn.
    I have many great memories of Woodbine and the people that made it so great.

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