Wednesday, 12 June 2013 12:55

Claresholm Racing History

Written by Garry Allison - Rocky Mountain Turf Club
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With an abundance of sulky and flat racers it was felt Claresholm should have a race track as far back as June, 1907. J.R. Watt, Charles James, H.P. Bell, Donald Vanhorn, W.R. Lindsay and C.E. Tillotson were appointed to find a suitable location. They accomplished this by driving through town in a democrat and scouting possible sites.

"Five acres were obtained from C.S. Noble for $525 and the balance of some 18 acres from Ira Wannamaker at a price of $2,200," wrote J.R. Watt in a 1941 Lethbridge Herald article.

The track was constructed by Tillotson following the approved plan of the American Trotting Association. Within three weeks the well-graded track and grandstand were in place for a July 1 grand opening. The track was 25 feet past a half mile and its firmness was loved by the harness people. The fastest time was held by Miss Mercury in 1913 at 2.18:75.

"We wanted to sell pools, the customary mode of betting at that time, but the mayor was opposed to wagering, stating that he would oppose pool-selling to the limit," wrote J.R. "In deference to him there was no betting, which proved mighty unpopular with the crowd."

Opening day the local band played, but had a very limited repertoire. "A merchant frequently told the story that when the jockeys were parading to the post for one event, the brass instruments blared out Onward Christian Soldiers."

Watt said the committee learned a Fall race meet, no matter how popular in Ontario, "was no good in the west." Another sidelight Watt related was the fact Sam De Rinzy, who acted as judge at Macleod and Claresholm, frequently said, "of all the meetings (race meets) he attended the one at Claresholm seemed the dullest and he never saw such a disconsolate crowd leaving a race track."

Claresholm was soon running more local-oriented events, one entirely for Indian-owned horses in the area. For many years the race meet was held in conjunction with the Exhibition, but those early fairs ceased in 1927.

"Many younger folks may find it hard to realize the hoses (trotters) raced up to five times, a mile each time, during an afternoon in the various heats."July and October of 1909 saw a pair of race meets in Claresholm. The July meet had the advantage of being held on Dominion (now Canada) Day and close to 2,000 people marched out to the grounds. The feature race, setting a trend seen in the 2000s, was an Alberta-Bred only race, to be called the Claresholm Derby. Rain often interfered with the Derby, with renewals missed in 1911, 1929 and 1932.

However, during its time the Derby was the oldest event of the era. In 1909, the first Derby was taken by Greasy Pete (by Captain Lawrence), owned by Wallace Eddy and R. Cooper of Pincher Creek, coming home on top in the mile and sixteenth run. The horse was bred by Dr. Warnock, a one-time MP for the Macleod constituency. A claim of foul was lodged against the winner, but turned down. J.F. Rae of Claresholm saw his horse Llandaff finish second while Royal George, owned by Macleod's W. McKenzie was third. Greasy Pete, winner by head in the five-horse race, took 1:55 to cover the course.

The Dominion Day Mile was won by Irish Lad, owned by R. Dooley of Macleod. Lioness was second and O'Day took third. D. Wilson of Claresholm owned the second place horse and Lethbridge's M. McLean's horse took the show position. Time for the mile was 1:19. A handful of other races filled out the successful card.

The Fall meet was nothing compared to the July card when it came to attendance. It was low enough to cancel further Fall racing. Threshing may have had a bearing on the attendance. The card was a combination of pacing and flat races..

The Claresholm Fall Handicap, a mile run, saw Irish Lad surface again, ridden by Douglas.

He beat out Llandaff, with Small aboard, and Lioness. John Furman of Lethbridge took the free-for-all trot with Clyde Wells, beating out Little Buck owned by J.T. Kingsley of Claresholm.  The card was a full one, even with exhibition races, but it just didn't bring out the fans.

Among the early Claresholm and area horse owners, besides Watt and many of his board members, were Eric Moffatt, Sam de Rinay, "Shorty" McLaughlin and Fred Stribling of High River.

There was no shortage of breeding stock in the area as Nashwaak, Vance Guard, John Jackett, Gay Somers and Dragoon stood in the district at various times.

The leading flat racers of that starting era included J.F. Rea with Llandaff and Lioness, J.R.

Watt had Ranche King, the outstanding Balsarroch Fox (who was tough to beat even in Lethbridge) and others. R. Dooley owned Irish Lad and Charles Strangways owned Red Cloud and Happy Somers. Al Stranways ran Merry Maid, Henry and Mrs. ( Marjorie Leeds) Sharples owned Bugler, Pretty baby, Excelsior, Juliet and Ramona, Frank Brown owned Irish Guard and Allan Sharples had Billy Sunday.

"Probably the most popular horse even started at Claresholm was a pacer called Chick McGregor by McGregor Wilkes out of Chickamoose," said Watt. "Originally from the Walkerton, Ontario district was brought west to Brandon where he won a match race against Well Ahead, for $2,000. Jack Matheson brought him to High River where he passed into the possession of R. E.

Moffatt of Claresholm. Though an old horse then, he was still capable of winning races and captured purses at Claresholm in 1908 and 1909. Few ever saw Chick McGregor break. He was a pacer with a mark of 2.12.5."

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