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What horse racetracks used to look like in Toronto

Posted by Derek Flack / April 16, 2012

Horse racetracks TorontoIt's difficult to imagine today, but horse racing was once a marquee event in Toronto. Not only did the city's various tracks bring out big crowds during their heyday in the early 20th century, but a day at the races represented an opportunity for Toronto's upper crust to show off just how fashionable they were. Few occasions today serve as quite the same opportunity to dress to the nines during the middle of the day.

While Rexdale's Woodbine Racetrack — opened in 1956 — keeps up the tradition of a day at the track, a hundred years ago one would have also found tracks at/near Woodbine and Queen, Dufferin and Bloor, Davenport and Bathurst, Thorncliffe Park, and a little later, at Evans and Kipling in Etobicoke. Once you know this, it makes more sense why the Dufferin Mall and the TTC yards at Hillcrest are so sprawling, despite their relatively central locations.

By the late 1950s, a number of these tracks had closed down as marquee events were consolidated at the new Woodbine location. In the years that followed, horse racing in general suffered from a dip in popularity. For most, the idea of heading out to the track has become something of a novelty nowadays. Off Track Betting hasn't necessarily helped the local manifestation of the sport, as the participants in that particular ritual can place bets on races taking place all across North America. Big events like the Queen's Plate (founded in 1860) still draw a crowd, but in general horse racing has taken on a niche character in Toronto.

For more on the rise of horse racing in Toronto, see Toronto's Horse Racing History by David Wencer for Heritage Toronto.


2012412-woodbine-1907-f1244_it0263.jpgWoodbine 1907

2012412-Dufferin-Race-track-1908-10.jpgDufferin Race Track, 1908

2012412-woodbine-1910-13-f1244_it0564.jpgWoodbine, 1910

2012412-hilcrest-race-tracl-bath-dav-1911-f1244_it8213.jpgHillcrest, 1911

2012412-woodbine-1912-f1244_it0428.jpgWoodbine, 1912

2012412-woodbine-fashions-1912-f1244_it0567.jpgFashions at Woodbine, 1912

2012412-woodbine-distance-1919-s0372_ss0058_it0831.jpgQueen Street East (looking west) 1919, Woodbine in the far distance

2012412-woodbine-1923-f1266_it0693.jpgWoodbine 1923

2012412-woodbine-1924-f1266_it2623.jpgWoodbine 1924

2012412-jockey-woodbine-1924-f1266_it2650.jpgWoodbine 1924

2012412-woodbine-1924-f1266_it2637.jpgWoodbine 1924

2012412-woodbine-fashions-1925-f1266_it5341.jpgWoodbine fashions, 1925

2012412-old-woodbine-1926-f1244_it8189.jpgWoodbine, 1926

2012412-woodbine-1926-f1244_it8191.jpgWoodbine, 1926

2012412-woodbine-1926-f1244_it8188.jpgWoodbine, 1926

2012412-woodbine-1926-crowd-f1244_it8190.jpgWoodbine crowds, 1926

2012412-thorncillife-race-track-f1257_s1057_it9413.jpgThorncliffe Race Track, Ca. 1920s

20111116-sign-track-1930s-f1257_s1057_it0907.jpgThe Totalizer! Ca. 1920s

2012412-dufferin-race-track-aerial-1930-f1244_it2421.jpgDufferin Race Track, 1930

2012412-long-branch-evans-kipling.jpgLong Branch Race Track (at Evans & Kipling)

2012412-beauty-contest-woodbine-1948-f1257_s1057_it1611.jpgBeauty contest at Woodbine, 1948

2012412-horse-stalls.jpgUnidentified track, ca. 1940s (?)

2012412-woodbine-jockey-1950s-maybe.jpgWoodbine jockey, 1950s

2012412-Dufferin-Race-Track-1950.jpgDufferin Race Track, 1950

2012412-queen-elizabeth-race-track-f1257_s1057_it4997.jpgQueen Elizabeth presides over the Queen's Plate, 1959

2012412-woodbine-race-track.jpgNew Woodbine, 1950s

All but the last photos from the Toronto Archives. With the exception of the last image (via the York University Archives) references to Woodbine refer to the Queen East racetrack also known as Greenwood Raceway post 1956.



Rich / April 16, 2012 at 09:18 am
In before the surprised hipsters flooding Bloor-West chime in...

Yes, there used to be a racetrack where Dufferin Mall now stands. Seriously.
the lemur / April 16, 2012 at 09:31 am
The date on the photo with Queen Elizabeth is more likely to be 1959. She would only have been 13 in 1939, she married Prince Philip in 1947 and became queen in 1952.
Derek replying to a comment from the lemur / April 16, 2012 at 09:47 am
Yup, you're absolutely right. Thanks for the correction.
Brian / April 16, 2012 at 09:54 am
The photo of unidentified horse stalls are actually betting windows...
oph / April 16, 2012 at 10:45 am
The Breeders' Cup was hosted at Woodbine in 1996, which was the reason why the track was extensively remodelled. There was a lot of media coverage around it because I believe it was the first (only?) time it has been held outside of the States. I actually remember it quite vividly because I moved to the city that month and Woodbine was very close to my old apartment.
northdancer replying to a comment from Rich / April 16, 2012 at 11:02 am
And having grown up in the Junction don't forget about Carleton Race Course at Annette and Keele where the first ever Queen's Plate was held.
Derek replying to a comment from Brian / April 16, 2012 at 11:16 am
And lots of them... Thanks.
chinaski / April 16, 2012 at 10:42 pm

Old racetrack / racehorse / jockey photos are such a pleasure to look at....thank you Derek. I've been to the ponies a few dozen times in my life in different cities, so I thought if I studied the Totalizer for a few minutes I'd figure most of it out. Nope. All I can determine is the post time for the 7th race is 5.30pm.
Gary / April 17, 2012 at 06:21 pm
Great! It's about time y'all non horse folks knew what actually went on here in TO.
yash / April 19, 2012 at 01:08 am
What beauty album just loved the past thanks for great great upload
Best Online Deals / April 20, 2012 at 01:48 am
thanks for your post amazing collections of photos
Kevin Reidy / May 16, 2012 at 07:21 pm
This link is to a site that contains some more information about Long Branch Race Track.
The plaque is on Horner Avenue adjacent to the railway siding (SW corner of the property

Don Daniels / November 12, 2012 at 01:42 am
from the Dec 29, 1927 Trotter and Pacer magazine:

How the Canadian National Exhibition is Managed
By S. J. Lombard

AT this season of the year a short history of what is being done in other parts of the country in an agricultural fair way may possibly be of interest. This year I had the opportunity of inspecting the grounds and buildings where the Canadian National Exposition is held. This exposition covers 350 acres of lake front property at Toronto and drew an attendance in 1927 of 1,800,000 people. The high point for a single day's attendance was 280,000.

The price of admission is only 25 cents and as a result the residents of Toronto and other near-by cities attend not only once but every day.

The size and magnitude of the Canadian National Exposition, in addition to the remarkable attendance figures just stated, may be better appreciated from the following partial list of the buildings used in connection with the exposition : Electrical , furniture, government, industrial, international, machinery manufacturers, music, pure food, radio, stove, and railroad.

The building in which the coliseum is located has a total floor area of over twelve acres and other buildings on the grounds have very large amounts of exhibition space.
One of the unique features in connection with this wonderful exposition is the way the buildings are paid for. When the exposition management decides that a new building is required, as for example an electrical building, all electrical supply and manufacturing con cerns are visited and space is rented on a tenyear contract basis and when a sufficient amount of space has been sold on this basis the City of Toronto raises the money and builds the structure. In ten years' time the indebtedness is paid solely from rentals. The building immediately becomes the property of the exposition and all upkeep and other matters of expense are borne by the exposition. With the single exception of the Dominion Government Building all buildings on the exposition grounds have been built in the way and manner described.

This exposition draws exhibits from all over the world and many of the foreign concerns occupy the same space year after year, putting labor as well as money into construction work and permanent booth equipment.

The grounds are located on the shore of Lake Ontario and a beautiful view of the lake is obtainable from any part of the grounds. The grounds are a public park and used by the residents of Toronto during the entire year with the single exception of the two weeks of the exposition when an admission as stated of 25 cents is charged.

This show may properly be termed a small world's fair as the buildings are all of either brick, cement or stone construction and the air of permanency to the whole plant impresses one at once.

The exposition was started in 1879 and has been held annually ever since. The grandstand has a seating capacity of 16,800 with additional standing room for 8,000 more. Over $100,000 is spent annually for free acts and other attractions for the entertainment of the patrons of the fair.

After having the privilege of inspecting the wonderful buildings and looking over the plant one cannot help but be impressed with the idea that agricultural and industrial expositions have a glorious future both in the United States and Canada.

tommy replying to a comment from the lemur / June 22, 2013 at 12:56 pm
her mother was also queen elizabeth
Gary replying to a comment from Kevin Reidy / March 1, 2014 at 04:43 pm
I used to ride down from Bloor & Islington area to Long Branch
track on my bicycle in the 40's to watch the races from the back of the track opposite from the finish line . Never knew who won,but it was free from there.
Robert Smith / October 21, 2014 at 09:40 am
What a wonderful bunch of photos . What is the protocol if I wished to show one or two of the old pictures on a reputable website dedicated to harness racing history ?
dave mason / November 7, 2014 at 04:47 pm
Dear sir,
I have just found your website on racetracks and jockeys.
I rode my first race at torontos old woodbine in ninteen sixty.
I would like to have pictures of jockeys snd the grandstand
I remember al coy and avelino gomez they were allways trying for leading rider no matter where they went.
When John leblanc won his first race in ohio riding flakwin
I took the horse to the paddock
jack / November 24, 2014 at 01:17 pm
i grew up on kenilworth near the woodbine - would ride our bike down to the back fence and watch the races - nearby was the "cut" ashbridges bay - not very nice - jm
Pauline Coakley / January 3, 2015 at 01:23 pm
it was great seeing those pictures, I have pictures from the 1940's when my dad was a jockey at woodbine and dufferin racetracks, he also rode at blue bonnets. My mom was also an owner/trainer at that time. I remember old woodbine race track
Judy / February 15, 2015 at 07:54 pm
This is fabulous. Only problem; you guys who had folks who rode or worked on the racetrack should compile all old photos and memorabilia. It would make a fantastic treasure to put together a history of Toronto/Ontario racing.
So many photos exist and hardly any of them are labeled or identifiable. And those who can possibly identify them disappear with the passage of time.
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