Wednesday, 24 October 2018 10:02

Imagine Two Pictures...

Written by Curtis Stock
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One is a shot of a cloudy, dreary fall Tuesday night of harness racing at Northlands race track. A light mist is gathering. That picture was taken in 1982. The second picture is of a windy but sun drenched Saturday afternoon card at Northlands. This picture is from just a couple weeks ago - Saturday Oct. 13.

Harness racing is again taking place but beyond that there are few similarities. You’ll notice that in the first picture, despite no feature race of any consequence, the tarmac is still crowded, the clubhouse is full and the tote board is churning.

The second picture shows an almost empty tarmac, at best a half-full clubhouse and there is very limited wagering. Despite the fact that the Western Canada Pacing Derby and the Don Byrne Memorial - two $125,000 races - are on the program betting on the entire card will only total $77,392. And that’s from all sources: on track and off track.

By comparison they will still bet close to $400,000 on that day in 1982 - a year when average daily harness wagering was $576,000. (The thoroughbreds would average $861,574 that year.) The 1981 picture is a distant memory. This Saturday so will Northlands Park racetrack.

“After the last race on Saturday we turn off the lights on live horse racing,” said Northlands director of Racing and Gaming Scott Sinclair. “It will be a very sad day. It’s the end of 118 years of horse racing on the same site at Northlands.

“It’s the end of an era especially when you consider the hundreds of thousands of races that took place here and the amount of people that came here - generation after generation of racing fans.”

Horse racing will now move to Century Mile next door to the Edmonton International Airport. The Century Mile casino will open April 1, 2019 and the first day of racing next year will be April 28. “I brought my nephew to the Derby this year,” said harness trainer Randy Ducharme. “I told him you have no idea how big racing used to be.”

Indeed it was. While the last thoroughbred race took place Aug. 25, harness racing on the international scene was even bigger given that Northlands used to host the Stewart Fraser Memorial, which, with a purse of $200,000, was the richest race in all of North America for aged horses.

Under the guidance and will of former Northlands general manager Colin Forbes and his racing secretary at the time Purvis Lawrason, Forbes not only started the Stewart Fraser but also brought two Breeders Crowns - North America’s championship races to Edmonton.

Troublemaker won the 1984 three-year-old colt Breeders Crown championship over Guts and On The Road Again - the latter, who won 44 of his 61 starts including the 1984 Western Canada Pacing Derby and retired as the second leading money-winning pacer ($2,819,102) of all time - the best harness horse to ever come out of Western Canada.

The following year Stienam took the Breeders Crown three-year-old filly pace over Amneris in 1985. “All the best horses used to come to Edmonton for the Stewart Fraser - all of them,” said former track announcer Alan MacDonald. “It was unbelievable.”

But it wasn’t just the Stewart Fraser that brought fans out to Northlands in those magical days. “It wasn’t just one day. It was every day,” said MacDonald, who now trains a few harness horses in Prince Edward Island.  “Even on a poor card on a Tuesday or a Wednesday there was something in the air that something was going to happen.

“I’ve been to a lot of racetracks over the years but I don’t remember quite the electricity that ran through Northlands anywhere else. We were lucky to be there during those days. “Northlands was the place to be. You’d have Edmonton Oilers sitting in the grandstand and in the clubhouse. Eskimo players would go there too. Tom Wilkinson and his wife used to be there just about every race day. Jackie Parker would come.

“You’d have some of the richest people in Edmonton having a beer with some of the poorest people downstairs in the old Inner Rail which was probably the biggest bar in Edmonton.

“But there are two things I really remember about racing in Alberta in the 1980s: Keith Clark and truck load after truck load of horses coming out of Kentucky and Pennsylvania headed for Edmonton. And it wasn’t just yearlings. Alberta horsemen would buy aged horses for the top classes too. That’s quite a testimony to the strength and the money that was on the go here.

“One year I remember Pat Tracy saying he hauled 80 to 90 horses out of the U.S. to Edmonton.  “And what can you say about Keith Clark?,” said MacDonald. “He was the leading driver and trainer every year. And the horses he developed like Ron’s Girl, who went on to be the best in the world in 2000 when she won a Breeders Crown, As Promised, who won 71 races; Thatll Be Me, who won the 1995 Breeders Crown at Northfield Park in Ohio; Just Doodlin and on and on and on.

“Everything about harness racing in those days was real. It was really, really good.” And soon it will all be gone.

“It’s sad for sure,” said former trainer/driver Darryl Litke, who still helps out in the mornings at Northlands. “I mean we’re talking over 100 years of racing. “The Oilers were good and the betting was great. Horse racing was big. It was huge.”

Veteran trainer/driver Gary Clark believes it still could be that way. “If they had promoted and advertised horse racing I believe people would have still continued to come.”

“The feature race from Northlands used to be on CFRN TV every race day,” recalled Litke. “All the radio stations had the results and selections.

“Wes Montgomery used to talk about horse racing every morning on 630 CHED. Bev Munroe used to do the same thing on CFCW. “Now a lot of people don’t even know there is still harness racing going on or that this is the last weekend of racing ever here.”

“We had the best track in North America,” said another veteran driver/trainer Rod Hennessy, who won this year’s Derby with Cheddar Jack with his son, Mike, doing the driving. “I just wish they could take the dirt from this track and bring it to Century Mile. Northlands was such a great place to race horses and to bring friends to watch those races.”

While harness horses used to race at Northlands on fair circuit days at the turn of last century it wasn’t until 1961 that the sport raced in Edmonton full time with Bill Connelly, a city councillor and member of the board of what was then the Edmonton Exhibition Association, almost single-handedly bringing it back after decades of only thoroughbred racing.

"I saw my first harness meet as a kid and I was hooked from that moment on," he told The Journal in 1984, shortly before his induction into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame.

Unable to convince the board to go along, Connelly did it himself, with his own money, leasing tracks in Edmonton, Calgary and Saskatoon. Forest Wilson and Nealie Oliver had the biggest stables when racing returned full time to Edmonton. Raising and training his entire stable, Oliver set numerous track records and won the Western Canada Pacing Derby at Northlands five times.

The top percentage driver in all of North America in 1967, Oliver won the 1964 Pacing Derby with Queen Champ C, the 1967 edition with Birdies Rod and the 1968 edition with Queens Baby. He also won the Pacing Derby with Queenies Mite in 1969 and with Dixies King in 1971. At the age of 75, Wilson owned trained and drove Time Stream to victory in the Western Canada Pacing Derby in 1974.

Shortly after, Ray Remmen followed his grandfather, Art Hunter, into the sport. A former driving champion at Northlands, Remmen won the Western Canada Pacing Derby four times: Chunky Mohawk in 1964, (Neeboots 1970), Eyrego Express (1972) and Stormin Stephen (1975). The latter posted the west’s first first sub 2:00 minute mile (1:59.4).

Around that time Dr. Brad Gunn went to Harrisburg, Pa and bought a young stallion named Adios Pick that would change the entire scope of the sport in Western Canada. In all, Adios Pick sired 620 winners, including 36 winners of $100,000 or more, and his offspring amassed earnings of $18.8 million. Gunn named almost all of his horses Senga something which was his wife Agnes’ name backwards.

But it was the Stewart Fraser which really put Edmonton on the harness racing map. Here’s a look at some of the Stewart Frasers and the horses it attracted during its tenure from 1993 to 1995.

  • In 1983 ‘The Pacing Machine’ Cam Fella, who retired as the richest standardbred of all-time ($2,043,367) was victorious in the inaugural Stewart Fraser. The 1982 and 1983 North American harness horse of the year, the Stewart Fraser was one of his 30 wins in 36 starts and one of his 28 straight victories. Remarkably, Cam Fella, a horse with a huge heart, raced in Edmonton four times.
  • In 1989 Matts Scooter won by eight lengths in 1:52. Matts Scooter was both 1988 and 1989’s champion North American Pacer of the Year and retired as the world’s fastest standardbred with a time-trial of 1:48 2/5. He won just under $3 million.
  • In 1991 Camluck, a son of Cam Fella, was victorious when the thermometer registered -8 and a bone-ripping wind howled. Despite the frigid conditions, Camluck won in 1:53 4/5 - equalling the third-fastest mile ever paced at Northlands. Stablemate Odds Against was second. Camluck won 26 races and just over $1 million. He would go on to be the world’s all-time leading money winning sire at the time.
  • Artsplace stole the show in 1992 but it was trainer Bob McIntosh who took the headlines. Winning his 17th race in a row, that year’s Stewart Fraser would be Artsplace’s last race. Artsplace won by a length and a quarter over Camluck and Odds Against marking a 1-2-3 finish for McIntosh and his ‘Dream Team.’ Artsplace won 37 of his 49 races and paced in 1:49 2/5.
  • In 1993 Staying Together came to Northlands and set the track record (since broken by Tajma Hall with a mile in 1:50 3/5) pacing in 1:51 1/5. It wasn’t just the final time that was so impressive. Given that the half went in 57 1/5, Staying Together paced his last half in an unbelievable 54 seconds flat. Staying Together, who won by four lengths over Bilateral, won 46 of his 95 starts and retired as the fastest race-winning pacer when he won in 1:48 2/5 at the Meadowlands.
  • The 1994 edition of the Stewart Fraser almost produced one of the greatest upsets. Village Jiffy, the 2-5 favourite, won by just half a length over the little powder keg from Alberta, Thatll Be Me. "I hooked wheels around the last turn which probably cost me two or three lengths,” Keith Clark said after the race.
  • What would be the final Stewart Fraser in 1995 saw Alberta-owned Armbro Larson post the upset at odds of 11-1 while 3-5 favourite Ball and Chain, who had recently won in 1:49 4/5, finished fourth. ''Hard to believe,'' said Armbro Larson’s trainer Clark Beelby, as surprised as anyone about his half length 1:53-victory in Western Canada's richest horse race over Thatll Be Me. “I thought maybe I could finish fourth. ''I almost sold him last week for $55,000 (US).”

Thanks for the memories. 

STOCK REPORT - With Saturday the final day of live racing at Northlands, simulcast racing will continue until the Nov. 3 and 4th Breeders’ Cup. Northlands casino stays open until Jan.31.

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