Thursday, August 21, 2008

Greenwood Raceway. A Long Time Ago.


Cangamble’s blog had a neat link to a post from a player who used to ride the train to Aqueduct. It made me think of the old trips as a student to Greenwood Raceway on the waterfront in Toronto. For those that know Greenwood, and have been there, here are some memories. For those who had not been to Greenwood, think of this as a primer to Ontario’s only real metro-downtown track. Greenwood is gone now, sold by the then OJC for a nice sum. It is a housing development. I drove by there about a month ago, going somewhere or another, and I had to laugh. In someones backyard I was clocking warm ups not so long ago.

In first year University, the ride to Greenwood was easy for a small town kid - the Queen streetcar was right by school. I had already been indoctrinated to the streetcar my second day in town, when I had to take it to the exhibition for an ACDC concert. If I could get through that, I could get through anything. It cost like a buck, and it would give you plenty of time to study the program. Not that we needed to - we had read it cover to cover the last 48 hours and could pretty much recite the racelines without looking. At the beginning of the ride you would be on with a few business types, which would drop off when we got to Regent Park. Then the fireworks would begin. A good deal of horseplayers, approximately 50% of which needed a serious shower, would flood the car. Listening to them try and pick winners with words like “who is stiffing tonight”, “Steve Condren’s uncle told me he is going with the seven in the third” and “Doug Brown could win nine tonight” was always fun.

Getting off at Coxwell was an adventure. It was crowded and crossing the street makes one wonder how lives were not lost. Heading in the west exit you were met with a man selling “the green sheets”. I never bought one, but I think they were two bucks. I think the fella was a good handicapper. There were no scams with the green sheets, like printing them off with all winners and throwing them on the floor after the races. It was good old-fashioned horseplaying.

Being broke we would not head to the clubhouse, it cost an extra few bucks. The smoke filled grandstand floor was never good for spectating, so we would go to the grandstand. Usually it was pretty packed and if you got there late you would have to head to the top level, where Toronto’s Jamaican community was well represented. They were quite vocal. For some reason they were Michigan invader John Moody fans. I don’t know how many times I would hear “c’mon Mr. Moody” in a thick Jamaican accent. Most days the air smelled funny up there, too.

Fortunately we were usually there early where we would clock warmups. You learned pretty quickly that Cal Campbell warmed up in a jog cart, and J Wade McCoy would do a 45 last three eighths in a race bike. Sometimes though you would catch some good winners when people did things out of the ordinary.

If a longshot won the 5th, out came the sellers. They are alive in the pick 4 and they want to sell. Rarely, if ever they would, but they would try. If I knew then what I know now, I might have taken them up on it from time to time. I bet there was some value. If it was super-7 carryover day and someone was alive after the fourth or fifth leg, watch out, they’d be looking for investors. I never once hit a super 7, and I don’t think I have today either.

Race 7 was a good time to get a roast beef sandwich. $4 for a slice of heaven. I don’t know where they got the beef from, but there was nothing better at Greenwood.

Heading home on weeknights was usually done after the last, but on weekends that time was reserved for a restaurant called the Mecca. They had a satellite dish and you could watch the Meadowlands. A beer, some awesome food and the Meadowlands while hanging with horseplayers was a staple. It was extra special if you had a good night.

Summers at Greenwood were especially fun. Sitting outside was a blast. So many horseplayers, all with opinions, and generally good people to chat with. I don’t know how many people I met that I know today during that time, but the number is large. Most are not playing the races today, broke, lost interest, whatever, but those were good times.

The North America Cup was huge. I remember watching Jate Lobell and Frugal Gourmet way back when, but I did not see the whole race. I saw it in snippets, as I could not find a spot to watch and I had to jump to see over the metal thing in the aisles. I wished I was 6 foot 5.

Earl Lennox calls were fun. I remember he used to say "and here comes Peter Cottontail coming from the east end parking lot" when he made a wide sweep at the top of the lane.

Tips were always there. So many tips. I learned quickly why (I think it was) Harvey Pack said he wants to come back as a bookie in the jocks room after he dies. One night however, I remember the tips were fabulous. There were two good sources and they gave two bang up winners. $8 and $26. I hit a few more things that night, and I walked away with about $900 profit. Big day. Steak at the Mecca that night.

Schoolers for 2 year olds would be run before the races started and they were fun to watch. I got to see a good many quality racehorses during that time, at a young age. Doug Arthur, of Cam Fella fame, would always have some solid US breds qualifying, which would stick out with the Armbro Splurge’s, Fundamentalist’s and Jade Prince’s. I remember Bo Knows Jate’s first schooler. He was way behind, made up a ton of ground pacing about a 28 flat third quarter, and then took a complete right turn at the head of the lane. Doug somehow got him pacing straight and he exploded to victory.

This time was one where the ‘off the claim’ trainer started happening, with the relatively new practice of milkshaking, which was not outlawed at that time. Gosh they would drop time. And more and more people would be handicapping trainers. It took awhile, but we were beginning to see what we see today - certain folks opening up at 3-5 off the claim, and staying there. The edge was good early on though. Programs did not even print who the last trainer was, or if there was a barn change. It was worth keeping a whole stack of programs in the closet!

Winter racing in the afternoon was interesting, and during that time at Greenwood we began to see the changing of the game. Simulcasting started from Florida. You would have tons of thoroughbred bettors hammering the Calder and Gulfstream simulcast all winter. The place was completely packed.

It was a different time, a different era. It is, of course, not like this any longer, and it will never be. As RG, our regular reader and contributor spoke about in the comment section below:

On my block when I was a kid we had a drug store where they sold forms and scratch sheets. When the early papers came out around 3:30 they would have the first few results from the eastern tracks on the front page. Later in the evening probably a dozen older horse players would gather waiting for the evening papers with all the days results. The guy that owned the poolroom took bets. Saturdays special at the grill on the corner was pancakes with a form. The barber on the next block took the horses and always had the form and scratch sheet sitting around. The Fairgrounds was only about 3 miles on a steetcar. There was always somebody from the neighborhood who would bet for us. So how could I not grow up a horseplayer?

That could have been anywhere in North America in this different time. And it most certainly could have been at Coxwell and Queen, at Greenwood raceway.

18 comments:

Anonymous said...

Greenwood was the BEST! You failed to mention the small pizzas cooked and served on the first floor near the Queen St. entrance. The cheese was soooo gooey, it would stretch a foot or two before it would break off while you ate it. There were so many characters. One I remember was "Izzy", who was there every day, and would talk continuously to no one in particular, blurting out gems such as; "How can you win if you lose?". There was also a dude who carried around shopping bags seen mostly at the thoroughbreds who would announce to the crowd after the race that the winner was "a grandson of Northern Dancer", therefor how could everyone not bet on him. He failed to mention that the horse was a $4 K claimer at that point in his life. I remember cashing on several trainer/driver combos that no longer exist, such as Kingshott/Mayotte. I remember David Smith on the lead, leaning back in the bike almost flat to the ground, discouraging the pocket-sitter in deep-stretch. I remember personal favourite Shady Hill Pride circling the field four or five-wide from last and winning easily. Or Coolidge (a giant of a horse) wiring an $18K claimer with Tony Kerwood in the bike. And speaking of Earl Lennox: do you remember the grandstand enclosure erupting in laughter and noise when he unleashed one of his famous "WE GOT 'EM COMING FROM EVERYWHERE!" calls? For my money Earl was the absolute best. At least he knew where the wire was and who was going to hit it first, unlike the WEG's current announcer, who blows calls regularly. I miss Greenwood.

Pull the Pocket said...

that is some classic stuff Anon! Well done. Your memory is better than mine.

One I forgot: the boxing matches held in the downstairs bar. Leonard Hearns I remember. What was it, $15? since I went, I must have made money that night :)

Anonymous said...

Sometime I still stay across the street (Days Inn?) and use the trolly to get into the center of town. Nice OTB right there where the track used to be.

-Dusty

Orchard Park said...

Boy I miss that place. Woodbine is terrible for harness .Mohawk as nice but it is has gotta be 70 km from downtown Toronto. There was a track there for a 100 years they lost a lot of fans by closing it. Why did they sell ? If that place was open with slots now imagine the money. Yea it was a bit of a dive but it was my dive.

Cangamble said...

I remember Izzy. "You only live twice, once at home and once at the racetrack"
Also "I once had an Edsel, got in a collision (I'm not sure about the that part but I remember the third)...now it's a pretzel."

Cangamble said...

Now I remember the line.
I once had an Edsel, drove it too fast, now it's a pretzel.

Izzy could have easily written Dr. Seuss books.

Futchie said...

I spent a lot of time at Greenwood, but, primarily for the spring/fall t-bred cards....I remember the Valedictory stakes at Greenwood when I was a little kid, it was my fav, I think they went around about 5 times.
There also was a t-bred called Old Gun Powder, whom, after winning for the last time, ran around about 3 more times for good measure and the jock, I think it was Robbie King Jr, was standing straight up the whole time trying to get him too stop. Which reminds me, it always seemed stupid when I was a kid, they would finish a t-bred race and the horse would run into the top of the last turn to where the water trucks would park and then run all the way back instead of just coming down the stretch to return to the winners circle?

Regards,
Futchie

Anonymous said...

Allsome good memories of Greenwood. I especially enjoy someone mentioning COOLIDGE. I can proudly say I was the groom for that horse, and boy he was a big horse. I loved walking out of the paddock, heading for the winners circle, because everyone knew, once he got the front, it was over!!

Anonymous said...

I remember Greenwood... brings back a lot of great memories. Wow!! Where else could u play the best tag in the city..? Where else would u get a buck for nothing cause dads winning....? :) Where else could u eat a lot of greasy and yummy food all day long....? Thanks for the memories.... ;)
Val

looge said...

Greenwood, its atmosphere, its vibe and its excitement is the first and foremost reason i love harness racing today... what i wouldn't give to relive those days of my childhood.... its very difficult to find pictures of the old place, any thoughts?

Neil said...

Earl Lennox was so much better than any of the race callers since he left that you can't even make a comparison. He made the races more exciting. You could fall asleep listening to the guys they have now, it is like they are calling a funeral. Something died in the harness game in Toronto when Greenwood closed.

Roman said...

Neil, your sentiment is 100% true, Greenwood was a special place..

Anonymous said...

Yes I had been going to Greenwood in days when it was called Woodbine in the 1960's and up until it closed in 1993. I sure do miss that track it was one of a kind with losts of history.

Fred Robinson

Anonymous said...

That racetrack was the absolute best ever, as a horse racing enthusiast now and as a kid being taken there by my parents every weekend it is something i will never forget . My favorite races to watch on a weekly basis was the Junior Free For All , same horses would be entered every week and would take turns in the winners circle, horses like Armbro Cruiser , Cedarwood George , Hamptons Jim , Wide Load , Stargaze Hanover , Seilstar Ace , Quite a sensation , King Star , Seilson Bret ( a mammoth of a horse) and my personal favorite Take a Look ! I could not wait to get there every week to see these horses and always looked forward to the great atmosphere and food ...miss tht old place so much .

Anonymous said...

hard to believe 20 years gone by.
grew up at main/kingston road.
spent every spring and fall sat afternoon and wed nights.
if the summer breeze was just right, could hear the harness crowds all they home.
remember skipping school and had to hide around corner so as not to run into my dad.
wife still dose not understand why i keep a jar of "dirt" scoped up after the last t,bred race.

Neil said...

Does anybody have any old video of races at Greenwood?
Would love to see videos of horses like Happy Hoot, Banker Fretz, Atlasta Adios, just to name a few and to hear Earl Lennox call the races. I wonder if those old videos exist anywhere. If anyone can find them post them somewhere, would be a shame to let them disappear if there is a chance to save them. Cam Fellas last race would be great to see again.

Neil said...

It is a real shame that the so called government of Ontario could not recognize that the standardbred industry had built arguably the best harness racing in the World in Ontario. The quality of standarbred racing at Woodbine and Mohawk is top notch and should be nurtured rather than hindered by unthinking dolts.
Sadly, the same cannot be said of the Thoroughbreds. The slots may have raised the purses but the quality of racing is pathetic, many days you would think you were at Mountaineer. I can't defend the breeding of bad horses and that, for the most part is the norm. Allowance fields where a Beyer figure of 50 can win the race and too many maiden races full of horses who can't run a 40 Beyer. The slots did not encourage anyone to improve the breeding and we are light years behind where we were 20 years ago when Sam Son, Kinghaven, Levesque, Steve Stavro and a host of others were racing good horse in competitive fields.
Sorry to say but racing would not miss Woodbine thoroughbred racing.

DW said...

My Greenwood memories. Coming from East of Toronto it was 32 stop lights along Kingston Road to the track. One Saturday afternoon I remember Mr. Locke claiming 3 horses out of a $30,000 claiming race. For a split second turning for home I thought Armbro Turk was going to beat Niatross. I remember the triple dead heat. Happy Hoot was one of the three I think. Jate Lobell's track record in the North American Cup. Lot's of good memories.