Woodbine Racetrack is Toronto's ultimate horse racing track
Woodbine Racetrack is Toronto's premier horse racing track, where risk-takers amass over odds, trusty steeds, and a love of ridiculous hats.
Jutting out of a barren stretch of suburbia, this Rexdale Boulevard bastion of gambling has been a part of Toronto's landscape for more than 60 years.
It looks massively different than when it first opened in 1956. Named after the old original Woodbine Race Course (now Greenwood Off Track Wagering near Woodbine Beach), it's undergone several spruce-ups over the decades.
Thousands flock to this synthetic course during the summer months, from April to December, to partake in the spectacle, either just as observers or people betting on winners of the races.
The signature event is undoubtedly the Queen's Plate—the country's oldest thoroughbred horse race—held every June in Toronto (with some exceptions) since 1860.
If not for the performance of the Canadian-born horses pounding the turf to the finish line (and the $1-million prize), most attend for an equally impressive cultural event where guests arrive in their most outlandish headresses and chapeaus.
Live races happen here four days a week, but guaranteed to happen everydy are live races, a.k.a. simulcasts, from tracks worldwide, including from New York, Chicago, Hong Kong, and Japan.
That's what keeps the racetrack bustling during the off-season, along with the accoutrements of the 24/7 Woodbine Casino, which offers table games on the second floor (there are several restaurants there, too) and more than 3,000 one-armed bandits on the second floor.
The parking lot here fills up quickly on most days, so a walk across this stretch of asphalt is expected.
According to our guide, Huey, a 29-year employee of Woodbine, about 10 percent of visitors are seasonal first-timers. The rest are regulars, some of whom, in my opinion, have likely fallen down the risk-taking rabbit hole.
It's easy to see why, though: there are betting options reasonable enough to tempt even the most frugal, and watching horses gallop at full-speed is viscerally exciting.
Huey shows us the winning history on a self-serve machine, and you can see that someone recently won a whopping $40K on the minimum bet of 20 cents.
Assuming you're here to watch the races, make sure to arm yourself with the handy programme, which details all the standings, stats, and info of the day's races, along with the horses and jockeys running them.
There's a detailed run-down of the what's and how's of betting here, but to put it simply, there are two ways you can place a bet: with a teller in flesh and blood, or with a self-serve machine.
Like any place of gamble, the interior of the Woodbine Racetrack building itself is a mix of ennui and suspense. Each individual race actually only lasts about 1.5 minutes, meaning the moments in between are suspensions between the mundane and the irregular.
The building is old, as demonstrated by the soiled floor of the elevator and the fact the third floor smells like mildew and cheese.
That floor would be the place to be for the races, where the outdoor stands or the Champions restaurant are.
Here's where you'll spot the gaggles of grandpas chomping peanuts and yelling at the field, or fancy older ladies sporting frilly hats.
It's an odd place, where the last vestiges of old-world privilege are tinged with the aroma of white wine and $18 burgers served on checkered paper, while those who can't afford a meal here (mostly older, single men) hang out in front of the TV screens inside.
A sprawling manicured lawn includes a 1.5-mile surface. Up above, the sounds of cheering are interrupted by the deafening sounds of the periodic low-flying airplane from nearby Pearson.
If gambling isn't really your thing, Woodbine does have a rural appeal, considering there are horses involved.
Contact the venue and you can possibly arrange a visit down to the track, or maybe even to watch the process of the horses being prepped and loaded into the gates.
That's probably the most fascinating part of the entire ordeal: while the jockeys and their steeds get all the glory, the actual horse handlers, medics, and hands behind-the-scenes are the real points of interest for me.
During one of the races, a horse jumps a fence and throws its jockey off. No injuries are sustained, thankfully, but the proximity to these majestic and frankly gargantuan beasts are a reminder that (as gambling is wont to do) it's all fun and games until it's not.
The scenery is beautiful, though, and if you've got at least 20 cents to spare, throw on some Old Town Road and bet 'til you can't no more—there's no limit here.
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