Historicist: Brawls, Gamblers, and Long Shots
Torontoist has been acquired by Daily Hive Toronto - Your City. Now. Click here to learn more.


1 Comment


Historicist: Brawls, Gamblers, and Long Shots

Every Saturday at noon, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

Unidentified Ontario Jockey Club horserace, before 1980. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1057, Item 896.

In its early years, the Queen’s Plate was a rather raucous and unpredictable annual event. Because the world’s oldest thoroughbred race was nomadic for its first twenty years, moving from the Carleton racetrack at Dundas and Keele, to London, Ottawa, St. Catharines, and elsewhere according to the lobbying efforts of politicians, its organization was loose. Rules and the course length differed from year to year. The Plate, intended by Queen Victoria to encourage colonial breeders to strive to develop quality horses, was sometimes little more than a sideshow at county fairs. Names of horses were changed from one year to the next, and the colour of a horse’s silks often differed from the description in the official program. There was hardly a running of the Queen’s Plate that didn’t provoke charges of fixed races, ineligible “ringer” horses, or illegal riding tactics. Confusion reigned. One classic example came in 1865, when the winning and second place horses were both disqualified. Nora Criena was reported to have won the run-off heat, but, months later and without explanation, Lady Norfolk was instead announced as the official Queen’s Plate winner.
Despite its royal patronage, in the early years the Plate attracted a rambunctious, disreputable crowd. Drinking booths were well-frequented, and dice games were a common sight. In 1866, the race in Hamilton was delayed when a half dozen firemen, emboldened by libations, started a brawl. There was a pause in the rough-housing when a passing race horse, “as if indignant at the bad behavior of the pugilistic bipeds” according to the Hamilton Spectator, kicked one of the miscreants so hard in the chest that blood came out his mouth. The interlude was brief as the firemen surveyed the damage to their colleague before resuming the brawl. Similarly, mounted Hussars had to clear the track of belligerents so the 1868 Plate could be run.

Crowd at Woodbine Racetrack, ca. 1926. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 8189.

Observing the chicanery of the earliest Queen’s Plates, a group in Toronto realized that for horseracing to survive over the long term it would need to increase its appeal to a more respectable class of spectator. Among them was Joseph Duggan, who had acquired the Woodbine racetrack in the late 1870s. W.J. “Jiggs” Howell—who’d operated a Yonge Street tavern called “The Woodbine”—and Raymond Pardee built the racetrack and a roadhouse at Queen and Kingston Road in 1874. The track was “tawdry,” according to one observer, and attracted an unsavoury audience of toughs who “thought nothing of pulling horses,” while the wider public remained largely indifferent. When Duggan acquired the property after a fire, he and Toronto postmaster T.C. Patteson enlisted leading members of Toronto society to form, in June 1881, the Ontario Jockey Club. The OJC’s express purpose, according to Louis Cauz in The Plate: A Royal Tradition (Deneau Publishers, 1984), was to establish firm rules and discipline in order to “restore the public’s faith in horseracing and rid it of the unsavoury practices that were common in its burgeoning years.”
The attendance of the Marquis of Lorne, the Governor General, and his wife, Princess Louise, at the 1883 Plate enthralled Toronto society mavens who were all-too-eager to emulate the royals. Upon the couple’s return to London, the Marquis was so impressed by the OJC’s handling of the Plate he recommended the Queen make the Club its permanent organizers. Under the Club’s auspices, the race grew in stature and prestige to become enshrined as the social and sporting highlight each May.
Nevertheless, despite being a society event, the Queen’s Plate never quite escaped, as Michael Kluckner put it in Toronto The Way It Was (Whitecap Books, 1988), “allegations of moral turpitude.” Although there’s no definitive record of when the first bookmaker made his appearance at a Canadian racetrack, there’d probably always been informal wagering between horse owners and spectators. By the late 1870s, the bookmaker trade had formalized and steadily grew in popularity. By 1891, fourteen bookmaking firms, including a number of American outfits, operated booths at the Queen’s Plate, causing the Toronto Mail to declare a gambling epidemic. By 1910, the federal government amended the Criminal Code to prohibit racetrack gambling, but allowed for the introduction of pari-mutuel betting in time for the 1911 King’s Plate—although few bettors liked the new automated betting machines.

The Ontario Jockey Club’s betting enclosure, 1911. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 210.

In the early 1920s, Woodbine drew the ire of Attorney General William E. Raney, a moral reformer who was also responsible for the post-war strengthening of the Ontario Temperance Act. Raney was outraged that the OJC, as he saw it, was reaping enormous profits from vice. He claimed the track returned an incredulous 1,000% profit. Flexing the enforcement muscles of the OTA, Raney pressed charges against at least two club members for drinking from a flask in the Woodbine stands, and levied a one thousand dollar fine against the club secretary for lack of diligence in enforcing prohibition on club premises.
Lacking the authority to ban racetrack betting entirely, a power that lay with the federal government, Raney had to content himself with an enormous, punitive tax increase. The new tax, which would give the government 5% share of all betting, was forced through the legislation only a few days before the 1922 King’s Plate, at a time when most of the bill’s chief opponents were absent. It appeared certain that the Plate would have to be postponed, but the OJC secured a court injunction on the morning of the race to prevent the provincial treasurer from sending provincial police to stop the race. A Conservative victory in the 1923 provincial election finally put an end to the government harassment of the O.J.C.
The institutionalization and regulation of track betting still ensured that the drama of the horsetrack was wildly unpredictable. A perfect example came in in 1924, when a little regarded colt—that had, in its only previous race, finished dead last in a minor event with a small purse—had one of the most unlikely runs in the history of the Queen’s/King’s Plate.

Maternal Pride wins King’s Plate, 1924. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 1346.

Foaled by Mother and sired by Plaudmore—who had also sired the 1920 Plate winner, St. PaulMaternal Pride didn’t really socialize with the other horses at Jack Bater’s Oakville farm. When Wilson first encountered the horse, he and his brother had to untangle Maternal Pride from an old wire fence he’d tangled his leg in. The horse emerged with a nasty gash on his leg, though it didn’t seem to bother him much. Wilson was intrigued enough by Maternal Pride‘s ardour that he bought him for $500.
When Hughie Wilson put forward Maternal Pride as a Plate entrant, he became the butt of many jokes in racing circles. Few bettors on May 17, 1924, paid any attention to Pride‘s workouts. A handful of women, as a nod to his motherly name, were said to have frivolously laid down two-dollar bets on the 96–1 long shot, but Maternal Pride was otherwise ignored by bettors more interested in Thorndyke and Maypole. As Wilson watched Maternal Pride approach the post from the owners enclosure, he could hear others around him muttering abuse at his horse. One said: “That colt of Wilson’s is nothing but a plug. He’ll break a leg at the quarter pole. Don’t waste dough on him.”
Maternal Pride burst out to a two-length lead. Then, when Catamaran tossed his jockey at the first turn and jostled the rest of the field, jockey Georgie Walls extended Maternal Pride‘s lead to eight lengths on the back-stretch. But the colt seemed to tire, and challengers slowly closed the distance back to two lengths. The crowd raptly anticipated the expected: Maternal Pride‘s inevitable collapse. But it wasn’t to be. Maternal Pride held off Thorndyke‘s late challenge to win and returned the greatest price in the Plate’s history. A two-dollar bet for win, place, or show returned $194.35, $95.45, and $43.65 respectively.

Hughie Wilson receives King’s Plate trophy from Lieutenant-Governor Henry Cockshutt, 1924. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 2271.

Many suspected Wilson had fielded a ringer. Reporter Frank Armstrong got the story when he asked Wilson outright whether there’d been any underhandedness. Wilson had trained Maternal Pride throughout the winter to ensure he’d have at least a respectable showing at the Plate. He pointed out the scar on the horse’s leg to authenticate the animal’s identity. The best evidence that there hadn’t been a ringer, Armstrong recalled in a 1961 The Telegram retrospective: “He was considered ‘nuthin” before the Plate and was ‘nuthin” after it.” Indeed, after the Plate victory, Maternal Pride rocketed back to mediocrity and never won another race of note in his career. But on an overcast day in May 1924, he won racing immortality in truly unpredictable fashion.
Additional source consulted: Trent Frayne, The Queen’s Plate (McClelland and Stewart Limited, 1959).