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Hands-Down Winner

Toronto’s Woodbine Racetrack operates year-round with a reputation for big purses, exciting races and world-class facilities.

By Karl Wolfshohl | Photos By Yvonne Duivenvoorden


Off to the races at Woodbine.

Off to the races at Woodbine.

The 30,000-seat grandstand at Woodbine Entertainment Group is packed on a warm June afternoon in 2011. There’s a general din and palpable tension in the crowd, as fidgeting horses enter the starting gate.

All bets have been cast. All eyes are on 17 high-strung, Canadian-bred, 3-year-old horses and their riders. Each horse and each jockey is intent on beating the other competitors to the finish line, 1¼ miles away on this oval track.

“They’re at the post. They’re off, in the Queen’s Plate,” comes the measured voice of announcer Dan Loiselle over the loudspeakers.

There’s the thunder of hooves and the trading of positions, with Oh Canada ahead by a nose after 5/8 the distance. Then Inglorious, the only filly in the race, makes her move. She storms out of nowhere in the final stretch, down the center of the track, passing the front-runners to burst through the finish line. And by now Loiselle is screaming into his microphone, and the din of the crowd becomes a roar.

The Queen’s Plate is Canada’s equivalent of its southern neighbor’s Kentucky Derby. Woodbine, on the outskirts of Toronto, is the country’s premier racetrack and one of the foremost tracks in North America.

A track in a track in a track. Thoroughbreds running on Polytrack are flanked by hard dirt for harness racing on the inside, and on the outside by the E.P. Taylor Turf Course.

A track in a track in a track. Thoroughbreds running on Polytrack are flanked by hard dirt for harness racing on the inside, and on the outside by the E.P. Taylor Turf Course.

Spectators seated in these grandstands actually look down on three tracks: a central one made of hard dirt for Standardbred harness racing and wrapped by the synthetic Polytrack, then both are surrounded by what is likely the most expensive grass in Canada, the E.P. Taylor Turf Course.

The synthetic and natural courses are only for Thoroughbreds, and some really good ones have run here. Northern Dancer did, in 1964. This was just after he won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness and just before he became the most successful Thoroughbred sire of the 20th century. A statue of this great athlete welcomes visitors to the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame, on the Woodbine premises. Secretariat ran here, too, in 1973. Considered the best racehorse of all time, the big, good-natured chestnut won the Woodbine’s Canadian International on a cold October afternoon, beating the others handily.

E.P. Taylor and the Ontario Jockey Club started Woodbine in 1956 as they consolidated several older tracks and upgraded the provincial racing industry. Adding a Standardbred track in 1994 made it the only racing facility in North America that could stage Thoroughbred and Standardbred races on the same day. And in 2006, Woodbine’s Thoroughbred dirt track was replaced with synthetic, all-weather Polytrack.

Workers remove temporary inside rails, set by a laser-guided tractor, on the turf course. The rails switch speeding horses to different lanes, resting sections of grass and keeping it healthy.

Workers remove temporary inside rails, set by a laser-guided tractor, on the turf course. The rails switch speeding horses to different lanes, resting sections of grass and keeping it healthy.

Superlatives define Woodbine, but people make it a champion.

“What convinces a person to get up at 4 or 5 in the morning, day after day, and work his tail off around racehorses, which can be dangerous and must be respected?” muses Steve Koch, Woodbine’s vice president of Thoroughbred racing.

“We have 20-, 30- and even 40-year employees who eat, sleep and breathe Woodbine and horse racing. They fight to the bloody end to put on the absolute finest product that they can for us. You see it in the jocks’ room, in the paddocks, around the horses, in the race office. You see it everywhere. They are passionate.”

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