History of Kawartha Downs
In 1971, racing at Peterborough’s venerable old Morrow Park came to a close. After decades of harness racing action, the sport had progressed to the point where a change of venue was deemed to be the best policy for everyone concerned. That year the Peterborough Racing Association’s lease with the Peterborough Agricultural Society was terminated.
The group’s decision to build a new racing plant came about after failing to receive long-term lease assurances in exchange for major capital expenditures to upgrade the aging facility.
For many years, the racing calendar centred mainly around the annual fall fair, held each year in mid-August. On occasion, other meetings were held, sometimes as many as five per year. With the advent of night racing in the early 1960s, Peterborough became the first so called B track to stage racing under the arc lights. Thanks to the efforts of a number of local horse loving individuals such as Orville Fallis, who served as President of the Peterborough Driving Club as it was originally known, the sport became extremely popular in the area. Pari-mutuel betting was first introduced in 1960, and the Club witnessed a huge increase in betting from around $4,000 in the early years, increasing to a high of $50,000 by 1970.
The last season at Morrow Park was a memorable one, marked by a number of firsts and lasts. One of the firsts was a temporary early season shut down of the track for four weeks. Once the difficulties were ironed out, racing resumed and the remainder of the season saw a marked increase in both wagering and attendance. The horsemen benefited from the economic upsurge which resulted in a general increase in purses including a hike to $700 for the weekly Invitation.
In mid-August, the Peterborough Agricultural Society held their annual race meeting which featured an Invitational Pace with a huge purse of $2,500. The winner of this race was the locally-owned Roannie Lad owned by Roger and Doug Hie of Cobourg with Doug in the bike. Their time of 2:06.3 was just three-fifths of a second off the track record as they defeated second place finisher Rob Ron Hal (Clarence “Sugar” Gagnon) with Retta Herrington piloting Barbara D Pride to a third place finish.
In the lasts department were a group of old-timers who had turned 14 that season and were thus entering their retirement years. The final performances of veteran horses like Freddy Pick, Fastry, Postal Chief, Billy Grattan B and Vans Pride C brought about a bittersweet feeling for the many fans who had watched them through the years. Each horse and their owner were presented with a cooler as a lasting memento, and a few even won their final start.
It is interesting to note that the season’s fastest recorded mile went virtually unnoticed and was actually viewed by a rather small audience. On the evening of August 21, driver Gerald Lowery qualified Billy Joe a respected “A” Circuit campaigner in 2:06 flat.
The season-long drivers’ race for the percentage crown went right down to almost the final race of the year on October 23. It was not until Sherman Moore won the eighth race Invitation with Shars Jade that he could lay claim to the title as he edged out Allan Nicholls. Even then a thin margin of just two percentage points separated the two.
With one win on the final night, Guy Larush took the dash winning title as he reined home 18 winners. Up for special mention was starter Tom Curtin referred to as an “unsung hero” as he added to the quality of racing at this final meeting.
Perhaps the last winner at the Morrow Park track was a gentleman named Peter Bonch of Peterborough who was the lucky recipient of a colour television set won in a draw on the final evening. A colour TV in those days was a pretty big deal!
Thus ended a memorable era at Morrow Park with the final night’s winning drivers in alphabetical order being Morley Brethour, Reg Gassien, Garth Gordon, Guy Larush, Ray Lowery, Sherman Moore, Allan Nicholls, Junior West and Keith West. As an interesting side note and an indication of the times, the total purses for the 10 events on closing night amounted to a whopping $3,400!
Memories of the good times were stored away as time marched on and a new era began.
Pictured above are the executives in office in 1972 the year that Kawartha Downs opened. Front row (L-R) Jack Heenan, Director; Elwood McDonald, Treasurer; Dr. Harry Hamilton, Director. Back Row (L-R) Ken West, President; Ray Lowery, Vice President; John Ball, Director; Bud Cotter, Director.
Kawartha Downs Comes Into Being
The site chosen for the new Kawartha Downs complex was located on Highway 28 at Fraserville, Ontario, six miles southwest of Peterborough in Cavan Township, Durham County. The 110 acre plot of land was purchased by the Peterborough Racing Assoc. from Lee Reginald Hewitt. The property had been in his family since 1921. At one time it was considered as a possible site for a minimum security prison which was eventually built at Warkworth, Ontario.
Surveying began in June of 1971 and the start of construction soon followed. The track was to be a five-eighths mile oval making it just the second B track of that size in the province, following the one built at Kingston. With the track designed to be 65 feet wide and suitably banked, it was anticipated that many fast miles would be recorded.
Stabling was to consist of two permanent barns each with 44 stalls. Additionally a 50-stall ship in barn was in the plans as well as a paddock to handle three races. Ample parking for some 150 horse vans was situated nearby.
The grandstand was to be the largest structure of the complex, measuring 200 feet long by 50 feet wide. Constructed of steel framing and pre-cast concrete it would feature three levels and provide seating for 2,000 spectators. Included in the design was a dining room terrace to accommodate 160 persons, a cocktail lounge, snack food concessions and public washrooms. Sitting at the top of the complex was a penthouse to house the announcer, judges, photo finish and television film patrol.
In a rather unique move, financing for the new track, which was to become Kawartha Downs, came about through the selling of shares to people most of whom were involved with the horse racing business. The complex was built for a reported $1 million, or in that range. A total of 137 shareholders were involved at the time of the opening and it was stated that no single shareholder held more than three per cent of the total.
The benefit to the horsemen was not particularly financially rewarding in terms of a rising share price, but it had other benefits. Instead, it provided a good place to race and also the children and families of horsemen often gained seasonal employment at the track. It all sounded like a good idea with ample planning, and that is the way it turned out.
After much planning and preparation and a few delays, the new Kawartha Downs opened on the evening of Saturday, July 22, 1972. General Manager Raymond J. “Ray” Richards was at the helm, a position he retained until 1984 guiding the track through its earlier years. A number of dignitaries were on hand for the occasion; many were local but others travelled some distance.
Among the opening night personalities was the Honourable Earl Rowe who presided over the ceremonial ribbon cutting ceremony. Affectionately known as “The Guv” throughout the sport, he was a spry 78 years of age at the time and still keenly involved in the sport. He was undoubtedly thrilled to be a part of the momentous occasion which was truly a milestone for harness racing in the Peterborough area.
A partial list of racing officials for opening night included Race Secretary: Harry Wilford; Track Vet: Dr. Harry Hamilton; Announcer: Cy Yard; Starter: Tom Curtin; Clerk of the Course: J.W. Orde and Paddock Judge: John Challice.
The opening night card consisted of a total of 10 races. In the first race ever at the new oval, Frank Conlin guided the four-year-old maiden pacer Bold Battles to a win in 2:08.4 for owner Joseph Guest of Hampton, Ontario. He was also a winner in the fourth with a horse named John Honey, to make him the first multiple winning driver.
Other drivers victorious on opening night were Frank Alexander, Carman Hie, Earl Shea, Jim McIntyre, Allan Nicholls, Tom Riley, Sherman Moore and Retta Herrington. Lots of names from the Morrow Park era were on hand to ‘christen’ the new facility.
In a slightly ironic way, the torch was passed to the new track when Sherman Moore won the opening night feature behind Shars Jade, a horse that won the second last race at the old Morrow Park location the previous year. Their clocking of 2:07 flat was the evening’s fastest and gave the new Kawartha oval its first pacing track record. Countless horses bearing the name “Moorelands” graced the Kawartha winner’s circle in the years that followed for Sherman and Barry Moore of Lindsay.
Since only one race on the opener was scheduled for trotters, the seventh race winner Hoot Valley and driver Frank Alexander laid claim to the first track record for that gait with a clocking of 2:09.3. The owner of this seven-year-old trotting mare was John R. “Jack” Ball of nearby Baltimore. He was an original investor and part of the group responsible for the creation of the new track and also served on many other committees within the sport over the years.
For many years Mr. Ball operated Ball’s Feed Mill at Baltimore. Today that site is part of the Ganaraska Conservation Authority. He also owned a farm in Hamilton Township, just west of Baltimore, where he raised his horses. It was located about one mile north of the old Hamilton Township Fairgrounds, a place commonly referred to by local horsemen as “Grasshopper Flats”. Many area trainers used that track including the Hies, Jack Gordon, Gord Sherwin, Ivan Thackeray and Everette Adams to name a few. When Kawartha opened, several moved including the Ball horses who shared a barn at the new complex with Ray Lowery.
Several special nights were held that first year and the track soon began to draw entrants from outside the local area. This of course was just before the coming of the Ontario Sires Stakes program which brought in many horses starting in 1974. For many years considered a mainly local track, the new KD soon moved up the ladder.
On September 2nd the travelling O.H.H.A. Belvedere Colt Series for three-year-olds came to town. The competition was outstanding and the race times reflected the calibre of colts and fillies involved. As part of a season long duel, two colts from the same town of Forest, Ontario, battled it out and in the process showed just how fast the new track could be.
Atomos, driven by owner John Lester beat out Derby Dan and Ron Ellerker, stopping the clock in what was then an amazing 2:02.4, thus setting a significant new track record. Also on that evening the eventual overall leading driver of the meeting Retta Herrington won both the Invitational Trot and Pace. Baron Angus took the Pacing feature while Papakomeka co-owned by Retta and Carolee Roland, both locals won the Trot.
The annual Fallis Memorial Race for a purse of $3,330 was held for the first time on September 16th, having been held for many years at the old Morrow Park location. It was held to honour a veteran of the area who was instrumental in bringing night racing to Peterborough in the earlier years. Unfortunately he did not live to see the furtherance of his early groundwork.
The 1972 winner was an impressive three-year-old filly named Chocolate Cherry who paced home in 2:04.2 with co-owner Gerald Lowery in the bike. He shared ownership with John Coxon of Port Hope. Sun Brier Bob was second for Junior West.
One evening, merchants from nearby Cobourg presented a cooler to each race winner as a show of support for the new venture. In a similar fashion, the Peterborough Chamber of Commerce also sponsored an evening. Each winning driver received a stop watch and the Invitational winner was presented with a cooler as well.
After some 35 racing programs, Kawartha Downs lowered the curtain on their inaugural meeting on November 23rd. The O’Keefe Brewing Co. presented monthly awards to the leading dash winning drivers. Ray Lowery was the July and August winner as well as the meet’s busiest teamster as he faced the starter a total of 102 times. Retta Herrington, who led all drivers with 18 wins, was the September winner while Carman Hie took the October title.
With a reduced racing schedule in November, Jack Bissonette needed just four victories to win that month’s crown. Not mentioned elsewhere but finishing among the top three percentage drivers was a real veteran Clarence Franklin, a native of nearby Northumberland County.
In July of 2002, a 30th anniversary reunion was held at the track featuring a number of different events. Each of the ten races was named in honour of a special personality which included either a person or a horse associated with the early years. The following were honoured, listed in order of the race named after them. Frank Conlin Jr., Jerry Robinson, Derek Newman Sr., Ray Lowery, Cedarwood George, Jerry Hughes, Gerald Lowery, Murray Samons, Billyjojimbob and Allan Nicholls. It was a memorable gathering as many people made a special effort to either race that evening, or just return to renew old acquaintances.
Ten years later the popular raceway marked 40 years with a special anniversary card. July of every year features a night to celebrate Kawartha Downs’ opening.
Over the years Kawartha Downs has seen a lot of ups and downs and through it all survived. Starting with the naysayers who opposed the building of the new track, many obstacles have been met and overcome. It has gradually gathered a rich heritage, assembled by those many people that have plied their trade there. Countless great families have grown up competing at Kawartha and often moved on, but to a person I don’t believe a single one has ever forgotten their roots.
Early in its history, Kawartha Downs was coined “The Class ‘A’ of the ‘B’ Circuit” and it would appear rightfully so.
(The above was written by well known historian Robert M. Smith and is reproduced with his permission.)
Kawartha Downs is now owned by Harvey ‘Skip’ Ambrose who purchased the property with a vision that included horse racing and an expansion of the facilities. His plans included the building of the current 3/8 mile paved oval known as Kawartha Speedway located inside of the horse racing track, which was built in 1999.
Also that year the current Ontario Lottery and Gaming Slot facility opened within the main grandstand. Sharing the building with the racetrack the Slots at Kawartha Downs features 450 slot machines, a restaurant and hosts many concerts and events.
In 2007 Kawartha Downs and Speedway also built the only paved Soap Box Derby track in Canada, the Gravity Cavity as it is called and each summer plays host to local and regional championships for the youngest members of the racing community.