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Published: March 24, 2018 9:35 am ET

Last Comment: March 28, 2018 9:19 am ET | 6 Comment(s) | Jump to Comments

In this week's Rewind Robert Smith goes back 60 years ago to recall a memorable race that still has some very real ties to the present day. He recalls an exciting time in our sport's past when fast times and big money were yet to come, but the level of enthusiasm and fan enjoyment was the order of the day. This edition of Rewind will be covered in two parts.

?Courtesy of The Ottawa Citizen

?In the process of putting together these weekly Rewind columns (Yes, they don't just appear out of nowhere) ?I often encounter some interesting old newspaper accounts. After all that's how we used to get all of our news. I find reading them has the effect of taking one back in time and almost recreating that time long ago. I recently found one that particularly piqued my interest for a number of reasons. It seemed like it would be a fitting inspiration for today's story.

Back in 1953 after many decades of presenting thoroughbred racing at Connaught Park in Aylmer, Que., the Gorman family decided to stage harness racing. A sort of "trial" meeting was held that included 14 nights of racing. The experiment was soon deemed a success and grew with each passing year. Racing at this locale became more of a sort of niche market that suited itself well for a lot of the horses and horsemen then available. The higher purses and larger crowds congregated at the much bigger Montreal tracks, but Connaught soon found its place.

Good competition didn't always require fast times as exemplified by a conversation I had many years ago with Walter "Butch" Srigley, a regular at the Aylmer track back then. He said he had a horse that pretty much trotted at the same 'clip' every time out. He recalled that regardless of how the race played out, his horse trotted every quarter in 34 seconds. "If nobody else went better than 2:16 I got a cheque." Walter left us a few years back but the moral of his story lives on.

Back in the earlier days of racing a rather non-flattering term -- the "Leaky Roof Circuit" -- was often used to describe certain places where the backstretch facilities especially left something to be desired. Connaught Park would have been fairly high on that list from much of what I have been told by those who raced there. Nevertheless it survived for many years and provided great entertainment in the process.

Dr. John Findley of Arnprior, the man responsible for bringing the new headline race to Connaught Park, ?is shown here in a 1958 photo.

Early in the track's history the management realized that holding feature races was a great way to draw fans and at the same time please the horsepeople. In 1958 a then 34-year-old Dr. John Findley, who was competing regularly at the track, approached Mr. Tom Gorman and Race Secretary Lew James with an idea. He and others who staged a couple of days of racing each year at Arnprior, Ont., had already started an annual race that was attracting attention. The local watering hole and meeting place aptly named "The Madawaska Hotel" in Arnprior had been putting up a sum of money (perhaps $200) and a cooler for the race. Dr. Findley suggested moving it to Connaught Park as part of their featured events.

The idea soon became a reality and the first edition at the new location was put on the racing schedule. It was advertised as The Madawaska Mile, a catchy name for sure. Its eligibility requirements were pretty simple. It was open to either trotters or pacers, and for non - winners of $200 lifetime. Back then for sure there were a lot of horses who fit those conditions. The date chosen for the inaugural was Saturday, June 13th.

The overall purse was set at an estimated $4,000, with the entry fees to be added. A total of 30 entries of both gaits were dropped in the box which meant that three eliminations would be held with the top four finishers in each returning for the final. Also a consolation would provide another heat and a chance at making a few dollars for those who finished back of fourth place. With a few weeks of action already in the books this spring, a few favourites were beginning to emerge much to the delight of the fans.

Two horses stood out somewhat above the rest. Perhaps the one that was drawing the most interest was a six-year-old mare named Baroness Atom. Owned by Pembroke Insurance man David Behan, this still green horse was the talk of Connaught. Previously tried on the trot she had been recently converted to the pacing gait, a change that was yielding huge rewards. She had just won four in a row and was showing no signs of letting up. Another hopeful was Miss Angus owned by J.J. Stewart of Ottawa as well as Pot Of Gold C.

Another horse drawing the interest of everyone was a nice three-year-old pacer named Leezoff owned, trained and driven by the aforementioned Dr. John Findley. This fellow had also won four in a row and would be part of a two-horse entry sent out by Doc along with a filly named Sadie Sue, also a three-year-old. Most of the current top drivers all had entries. The track's leading driver Almer Holmes, Herve Filion, Vic Lutman, Ross Curran, Pem Caldwell, Don Cox, Walter Grant and the list went on....Things were certainly shaping up.

In a very short span of time this race had suddenly become the talk of everyone interested in harness racing in the area. It was destined to become the premiere event of the young season.

Tune in on an upcoming edition of Rewind to read of the results of The 1958 Madawaska Mile.

A list of eligible starters as posted the day before the race.

Who Is It?

Can you put a name on this gentleman? The correct answer will be given during the coming week.

March 28, 2018 - 9:19 amThis week's photo as

This week's photo as identified by a couple of readers is Brent Davies. Brent was born in Saskatchewan and came eastward to Ontario around 1965 where he enjoyed a lengthy career as a successful trainer and driver.

March 24, 2018 - 8:22 pmSunday afternoon racing at

Sunday afternoon racing at Connaught Park in the summer was as close to heaven as any horse racing enthusiast could get! There were so many luminaries of the sport who got their start at the venerable Connaught Park that I would hesitate to start naming them. Many were given honourable mention in your article and deservedly so. Dr. Findley was as fierce a competitor as any, not giving an inch nor expecting an inch on the racetrack.

The signature race for many years was the Connaught Cup which Garth Gordon (son of Jack Gordon) won three times with his "iron tough" horse Banker Fretz. The legendary Billy Haughton raced Handle With Care at Connaught as a two year old. All of us who were driving that day were in awe of harness racing royalty and I remember Billy Haughton was very generous with his time to speak with everyone in the paddock. He was a class act!

Robert, thank you for keeping many stories of the past history of harness racing prominent in our minds.

March 24, 2018 - 12:36 pmRemember the track very well,

Bev Heywood SAID...

Remember the track very well, raced the 1961 season there with my brother. Remember the 1/2 mile surface was inside the mile surface with the stretch being common to both surfaces. As to the tar paper gentleman covered kitchen in the backstretch, I believe was known as "The House of Nonsense" It was definitely an experience to remember.
I can't put a name to the gentleman in the photo as the photo seems to indicate the gentleman had an artificial left hand? If my observance is wrong, my apologies to the gentleman. Look forward to the ID.

March 24, 2018 - 12:05 pmGreat article Robert. Always

Great article Robert. Always enjoy reading them on Saturday morning. Cowboy Ross - what a character he was.
Keep up the great articles coming our way.

March 24, 2018 - 10:40 amMy dad raced there in 1953,

Garth Gordon SAID...

My dad raced there in 1953, 1954 and 1955. I remember as a young boy running around the backstretch. Yes the backstretch facilities left something to be desired. There was the odd hole in the roof of the barns and the black shack restaurant did have the odd fly flying around. Some of the country’s best horses and drivers raced over that track. Ross Curran, Rick Zeron and all the Filion’s got their start there just to mention a few. The mystery photo is Brent Davis.

March 24, 2018 - 10:11 amMystery Guest is Brent

Mystery Guest is Brent Davies? We won the Madawaska mile 1 year with T.E.M. (stood for Thomas Edward McCool) a prominent car dealer and horse owner from Pembroke. Frank Baise drove and trained for the T.D.F.(three damn fools) Stables of Pembroke. Jim Bryson, Mac Casselman and Cec Pappin.

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