Years of the horse

Horse racing — the Sport of Kings — is deeply embedded in Toronto's history. It's likely that the first horse race here involved none other than Mrs. Elizabeth Simcoe, the consort of the province's first lieutenant governor. In her diary for September 23, 1793, barely seven weeks after the founding of York, she recorded riding on the peninsula (now known as the Island) escorted by one of her husband's officers, Lieut. Thomas Talbot: "My horse has spirit enough to wish to get before others. I rode a race with Mr. Talbot to keep myself warm."

For the next 40 years, the Island remained the favoured place for races and carriage rides; it was flat, well drained and clear of trees and stumps. But the bridges linking it with the town — which eliminated the need for a long, roundabout journey — were washed out almost as quickly as they were built, and seldom were replaced promptly. This, combined with the fact that many of the best mounts in town were owned by officers at Fort York, led to the creation in 1835 of a course on the Garrison Common.

But when land on the thousand-acre military reserve began to be divided into lots and sold, a farmer named John Scarlett laid out the Simcoe Chase on land he owned north of Dundas Street between the east bank of the Humber River and Scarlett Road, now part of the Lambton Golf Club. The first meeting on Scarlett's course was held in September 1837, and events continued to be staged there until 1842. By then, Toronto had two other, more conveniently located tracks to choose from.

William Henry Boulton's St. Leger course (named after the English Triple Crown race) opened in July 1841 near his family home, The Grange, on land bounded today by Spadina Avenue and McCaul, Dundas, and College streets. That same month, two "Tenants for behoof of the Public" named John Crawford and John Maitland declared in an open letter published in local newspapers that they had taken a ten-year lease on a farm on the south side of the Kingston Road (Queen Street East) between Mill Road (Broadview Avenue) and the Don marsh. It would be staked out as a racecourse as soon as the crops were off. Two months later, they invited those with ploughs, harrows, and carts to help prepare the course.

For reasons that are not entirely clear, the St. Leger racecourse had a brief existence and closed about 1845. The Union lasted longer — until about 1853, when its lease ran out and the land was turned to other purposes. At that time Charles Gates and Richard Tinning, Jr. were the proprietors of the Union races and it was Gates, an innkeeper, who developed the track that replaced the Union. His New Market racecourse was located on the north side of Danforth Avenue (then known as the Don and Danforth Road) a few blocks east of Woodbine Avenue. The first meeting there was held in the fall of 1853. New Market survived until around the turn of the century, and when the land was sold and subdivided for housing, one of the resulting streets was named after Gates.

To rival New Market, Toronto lawyer W.C. Keele and his son Charles created the Carlton Park course in about 1858 on land north of High Park, south of Dundas and west of present-day Keele Street. The track took its name from the nearby village of Carlton, where the Weston Road crossed the third concession road (now St. Clair Avenue). Served by the Grand Trunk Railway from Union Station, the Carlton course was soon the city's preferred location for flat racing. Carlton Park was closed about 1876 and turned into housing lots.

The Woodbine (later renamed Greenwood) track opened in 1875 and soon established itself as the city's dominant course. Other tracks nevertheless challenged, including the Toronto Driving Park, a half-mile track for trotters on Queen Street West between Lisgar Street and Gladstone Avenues that opened in 1872; Dufferin Park on the west side of Dufferin south of Bloor, which existed from 1894; and the course on the grounds of the Industrial Exhibition, forerunner of the Canadian National Exhibition.

photo by Toronto Archives: fonds 1244, item 2575

Leave a Reply