Historicist: Little Saratoga
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Historicist: Little Saratoga

Before there was the Dufferin Mall there was Dufferin Park, one of Toronto's most popular racetracks.

Finish line at Dufferin Park, ca. 1911. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 214A.

On the afternoon of Tuesday, November 8, 1955, a crowd of over 6,500 went to Dufferin Park for the track’s final day of racing. The program that day warned those in attendance that “Dufferin Park has been sold and will disappear. Patrons are advised to cash their winnings now.” One of Toronto’s most popular west end attractions was indeed closing forever, and would soon be demolished to make way for a new shopping mall.

The Dufferin Park racetrack traces its origins to the 1880s when the local land owners, the Denison family, created a riding track on their property for their own private use. Sometime around 1905, Abe Orpen began leasing the property and operating it as a public racetrack. Although the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame puts the first date of racing at Dufferin in August of 1907, it appears that races were held there at least several months earlier. The May 25, 1907 Toronto Star reported results for four races held at Dufferin Park over the long weekend, stating that “a fast track, favorable weather, and a good class of horses combined to make a fine afternoon’s sport at Dufferin Park yesterday… The attendance was large.”

The track at Dufferin Park was somewhat irregular in its dimensions. Abe Orpen’s son Fred, who ran the track from 1937 until its closure in 1955, considered the shape to be more egg-like than a traditional racing oval. “That track was virgin forest,” he also told the Star in 1936. “It was cleared right out of the bush and made a track by the Denison family for their own horses. It was a third of a mile but later it was increased and the result today is about a half [mile]… more or less.”

Aerial view of the egg-shaped track of Dufferin Park, looking east. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 2422.

In Dufferin Park’s early years, gambling was a hot-button issue in Ontario and subject to much discussion, both in government and circles and in the press. Bookmakers frequently set their own, unfair odds, designed to take advantage of the bettors. Several Toronto publications, including the Globe and Saturday Night, portrayed Dufferin as the least reputable track in town.

One 1909 Saturday Night editorial proclaimed: “Tracks of the order of Fort Erie, and our more recent example, Dufferin Park, have no excuse for existence,” associating them will illegal book-makers. The same editorial, however, praised tracks operated by the Ontario Jockey Club (the forerunner of Woodbine Entertainment), claiming that these other tracks were somehow nobler: “One is managed by the first citizens of Ontario with the object of exploiting a fine old British sport, while the others are operated for the bookmakers, [with] the horses and the racing being secondary considerations.”

In 1909, the Globe reported that the charter enabling legal racing at Dufferin had expired, and ran a series of articles and editorials reiterating this point, seeing it as a basis for the closing the track. After Ontario briefly shut down Dufferin, Abe Orpen applied for and received a federal charter from Prime Minister Laurier, enabling racing at Dufferin to resume. Orpen’s lawyer, Herbert Hartley Dewart, wrote a letter which was published in the Globe shortly after this ruling, claiming that much of the opposition to racing at Dufferin had been due to the Ontario Jockey Club seeking to close down their competition. Dewart also rejected the association of Dufferin with illegal bookkeeping as unfair, stating that “the attack upon the unpopular and widespread handbook system of betting on races that were being held at the larger race tracks was curiously and illogically linked in with the attack on Dufferin race track.”

Betting at Dufferin Park, ca. 1910. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 213.

Dufferin’s reputation appears to have cleaned up somewhat with the introduction of parimutuel betting in the 1910s. Under parimutuel betting the odds are determined by the bets rather than by the whim of the bookie, such that bettors are betting against each other instead of against the house. While this put the track on the right side of the new gambling legislation, private book-keeping largely continued undeterred, both on the grounds of the racetrack and in various off-track locations around the city.

In an exposé of Toronto’s gambling culture for a 1923 issue of Star Weekly, Ernest Hemingway wrote “Toronto is a famous betting town. But if you do not follow the races, you never see any betting. If you happen to be a bettor, you see betting everywhere. That is, if you look for it.” According to Hemingway, the majority of betting in Toronto at this time was done by cash rather than credit, noting that “the old halcyon days of Abe Orpen, and Moylett and Baillie, when bookmakers’ statements were only rendered once a week on Monday morning, are gone.” Hemingway describes a culture where betting takes place in ordinary stores, offices, and homes, with bets often being places on out-of-town races.

Ernest Hemingway’s article on Toronto’s underground gambling culture. Star Weekly, December 29, 1923.

Some of Dufferin Park’s dubious reputation may have stemmed from the legacy of its owner, Abe Orpen, who first rose to prominence in Toronto through a variety of gambling activities, many of them illegal. According to interviews given later in life, Orpen got his start in gambling as a bookie at Woodbine in the late nineteenth century. By Orpen’s own admission he was involved with traditional bookmaking, but claimed to have given that up with the advent of legislation requiring the use of the parimutuel system. Newspaper accounts allude to his association with various pool halls, saloons, and illegal betting parlours early in his career. In one interview, Orpen describes a dinner he once had with Al Capone, calling him “excellent company” and “a man of rare keenness and judgment.”

During the 1910s, Dufferin Park was legally controlled by the Metropolitan Racing Association, a group which Orpen had organized, with head offices on King Street. These offices functioned as a private club known as the Metropolitan Club, with members gaining admission to a variety of extra activities. In August of 1912, the offices of the Metropolitan Club were raided, and Orpen and a man named Izzy Wilkes were charged with keeping a gaming house, a charge which Orpen denied. “I haven’t taken a bet from a man perhaps in ten years, but what are you going to do about it?” he told the Star. “The police say I’m a betting man, and it costs more and involves more notoriety to fight the case than to take your hat off and give them a fine of a hundred dollars or so.”

Despite some of his associations, Orpen was also known for acts of philanthropy. At one point during the depression, according to the Telegram, “he bought and paid for… two meals a day for five hundred men and continued it for many months. Altogether he paid for 105,000 meals. That was a typical Orpen act.” He was also known for his honesty and fairness. A year before his death, Orpen was kidnapped and held for ransom. Orpen promised his captors $1,000 if he could be taken to his bank. According to multiple newspapers he went to the bank and, true his word, withdrew the money without raising the alarm and gave the money to the kidnappers in their car; as part of the deal he later refused to provide descriptions of the kidnappers to the police.

Abe Orpen, likely in the last decade of his life. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 3941.

While Orpen may have gone straight, illegal forms of gambling still persisted at Dufferin Park during his lifetime. While all indications suggest that the official betting at Dufferin was done above board, there was little that could be done to stop other bookmakers from going to the track and conducting business. In June of 1921, the RCMP threatened Orpen with closure of the Dufferin track unless something could be done to wipe out the illegal bookmakers, telling him that there was “too much open betting among the crowds,” and that “this insidious business that is being conducted by professional gamblers must stop.” While Orpen promised to do what he could to drive bettors to place bets through the legal parimutuel machines, he insisted that his powers were limited, and that there was no crime committed if two citizens happened to make a bet between themselves. “The federal authorities want me to stand at the gate and pick out the gamblers who come there,” he told the Star. “I can’t do that.”

Following Abe Orpen’s death in 1937, ownership of Dufferin Park fell to his son, Fred, who brought his own personality to the track. Amongst other responsibilities, Fred Orpen was known for his two-fingered piano rendition of the national anthem over the public address system at the start of each day of racing. Like his father, Fred was cited by multiple Toronto sports writers for his fairness and generosity. The Globe and Mail’s Dick Beddoes recalls that Fred Orpen would sometimes receive phone calls from women whose husbands had lost their wages at Dufferin. According to Beddoes, Orpen or one of his staff would drive to the woman’s house and deliver an envelope. “The message with the envelope was always the same: ‘Here, lady, is what your husband lost at our track. We approve of gambling, but not with the grocery money.’”

Dufferin Park in 1955. Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

Affectionately known in the Toronto press as “Little Saratoga,” Dufferin Park appears to have been a favourite track of the local sports writers. Describing opening day in 1955, the Star’s Jim Proudfoot wrote that Dufferin Park looked like “the Podunk county fairgrounds, and probably [owes] much of its tremendous popular appeal to that very fact.” Gordon Sinclair wrote that it “has a public and a smell and a type of fun all its own, and if you wander up there this afternoon late enough they’ll let you in for nothing.”

The Star’s Milt Dunnell called Dufferin “cozy,” and describes an atmosphere rich with a sense of local community, punctuated by the personalities who frequented the track. These include a man known as “Wee Willie Russell,” described by Dunnell as “the unofficial Mayor of Dufferin.” He also fondly recalled “Centre Field Willie,” further nicknamed “The Merchant of Venice,” known for salvaging equipment at the track, refurbishing it, and selling it on. According to Dunnell, “Centre Field Willie can sell a horseman almost anything from a rattrap to a broodmare.”

Although he also owned racetracks at Hillcrest, Long Branch, and Kenilworth Race Track in Windsor, Abe Orpen claimed that Dufferin remained his personal favourite. “At Dufferin Track all men are equal,” he told Gordon Sinclair in 1932. “We have no snobs or high hatters at Dufferin. That’s a race track for men who are men.”

While horseracing was undoubtedly Dufferin Park’s primary attraction, the site was put to a variety of uses. Oral histories with long-time residents of the area reveal that on non-racing days, the field in the centre of the track was used for baseball games and school athletic competitions.

For the children who grew up near the track, the big entertainment at Dufferin Park was the circus which would visit several times a year. In a 1978 interview conducted by the Toronto Public Library, Art Creamer recalled that “there’s a bridge just west of Lansdowne. You know, the underpass. Well, that was level and the train stopped there and they unlocked and then the elephants and everything came along Bloor and either down Brock or Dufferin and into the racetrack.”

Elephants believed to be on their way to (or from) Dufferin Park. Date unknown. Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

In his book Toronto Sketches 8, popular Toronto historian Mike Filey quotes a reader’s memories of the circus at Dufferin Park, mentioning the clowns and “big cats in their cages.” Margaret Lee, also interviewed by the Toronto Public Library in 1978, recalled the circus featuring ferris wheels and merry-go-rounds. Most vividly, Lee remembered that “you could hear the calliope for miles. It would come piping along Bloor… and then they went off down Dufferin and set up in the park in the racetrack with tents. Then everybody went down to see the circus…”

Despite the track’s immensely popularity — and immense profitability — rumours began circulating during 1955 that Fred Orpen was selling the track; these rumours were effectively confirmed in October, when he announced the cancellation of the winter harness racing program. When asked why he was selling, Orpen told the Globe and Mail “I received a most generous offer from Eddie [E.P.] Taylor, and as I have no male heir to carry on the name of Orpen in racing, I decided to accept. It was a very happy deal.” Of the decision to sell such a successful enterprise, the Telegram’s Bobby Hewitson wrote “closing up this track is like nailing a cover on a producing gold mine.”

The sale of Dufferin Park was part of E.P. Taylor’s plan to consolidate horseracing in Toronto. In the 1950s, Taylor began improving the facilities at both Woodbine and Fort Erie on behalf of the Ontario Jockey Club. Taylor purchased both Long Branch and Dufferin from Orpen with the express purpose of shutting them down, hoping to attract Toronto’s horseracing enthusiasts to other tracks, specifically Old Woodbine (later known as Greenwood Raceway), and the new Woodbine Racetrack which would open in 1956. An urban legend supposedly emerged that Taylor made his purchase of Dufferin Park in dramatic fashion, collecting several million in cash and presenting it to Fred Orpen on his pool table; most accounts, however, suggest Orpen was paid by cheque.

Dufferin Plaza, the first incarnation of Dufferin Mall. June 23, 1957. Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

The end came quickly. Before the racing season even concluded at Dufferin Park, allusions to the site’s future appear in the Toronto papers. On November 5, three days before the final race, the Star’s Neil MacCarl wrote that Fred Orpen “will barely have time to get the days’ final receipts counted before the workmen will start swarming over the place, transforming it into a shopping centre.”

Milt Dunnell speculated that the community might need some time to adjust to the site’s redevelopment. The day after the track closed, his column imagined former Dufferin Park regulars going to a new supermarket on the site and trying to place bets. “[A] lot of folks are going to be fooled when the bundle buggies of the shopping centre start rolling along what used to be the paddock bend… Even Centre Field Willie, alias the Merchant of Venice, may wander into the odds-and-ends department seeking a customer.”

Additional material from: Interview with Hazel Creamer and Art Creamer, conducted by Michelle Saville, July 27, 1978; Courtesy of Toronto Public Library, Baldwin Room; Interview with Tom Eversfield, conducted by Michelle Saville, July 27, 1978; Courtesy of Toronto Public Library, Baldwin Room; Mike Filey, Toronto Sketches 8 (Dundurn, 2004: Toronto); The Gazette [Montreal] (June 8, September 23, 1937); The Globe [and Mail] (August 14, August 19, 1909; January 21, 1910; September 23, 1937; November 8, November 9, 1955; October 13, 1963); Interview with Dorothy Lee and Margaret Lee, conducted by Michelle Saville, July 10, 1978; Courtesy of Toronto Public Library, Baldwin Room; Muriel Lennox, E.P. Taylor: A Horseman and His Horses (Burns & MacEachern, 1976: Toronto); Suzanne Morton, At Odds: Gambling and Canadians, 1919—1969 (University of Toronto Press, 2003); Cynthia Patterson, et al., Bloor-Dufferin in Pictures (Toronto Public Library Board, 1986); Saturday Night (December 11, 1909); the Toronto Star (May 25, 1907; September 2, 1909; December 7, 1910; August 29, 1912; June 11, 1921; February 9, 1932; February 8, June 20, 1936; September 22, September 23, September 27, 1937; April 28, April 29, October 4, November 3, November 5, November 8, November 9, 1955); Star Weekly (December 29, 1932); the Toronto Telegram (September 21, September 22, 1937; November 8, 1955; February 20, 1971).

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