The biggest event in Canada’s horse racing season is the Queen’s Plate, and it has been thus for more than a century and a half.
The Queen’s Plate is older by 15 years than the Kentucky Derby. First run in 1860 at Toronto’s old Carleton race track, which was then several miles west of the city, it subsequently moved from city to city before settling at Toronto’s original Woodbine track in 1883.
The list of hosting venues includes Ottawa, Hamilton, London, and Woodstock. Local politicos lobbied for the status of staging the race, and the decision was made by the governor general. In 1864, Viscount Monck decided that Guelph should have a turn.
The Guelph Turf Club had been holding races since 1847, most recently at its one-mile track on Eramosa Road, conveniently located near Gray’s Tavern.
The spot is now within the city, but in 1864 it was far outside the town limits in Guelph Township.
The membership of the club included many of the cream of Guelph’s elite. A.J. Fergusson Blair was president in 1864, and the directors included Sheriff George Grange, Dr. William Clarke, W.H. Dickson, Dr. T.S. Parker, and J.J. Kingsmill.
Many had held, or would later hold, public office. It was a group that could easily reach the ear of the Governor General, and it did so successfully in 1864.
For the big day, the Turf Club hired carpenters to expand the grandstand at the track, and to build additional seating and make other improvements.
The club also beefed up its usual program, offering larger purses than in previous years for races other than the Queen’s Plate.
The members expanded the session to three days, July 5 to 7, with the Queen’s Plate to be run on the first day.
The town of Guelph was already bustling at the beginning of the racing week. On Monday, July 4, every available room at Guelph’s hotels had been claimed, and late arrivals had to scramble to find overnight accommodation.
On the first day of the racing session the morning trains brought hordes of people into town, most day visitors. They crowded the downtown and the stores after stepping off their trains, lending a holiday feeling to Wyndham Street.
Enterprising locals had set up lunch stands, and the bar rooms did a land office business before noon. Many Guelph employers decared a holiday for their workers.
The races were scheduled to begin at 2pm. For a couple of hours before that wagons, carriages, and pedestrians plugged Eramosa Road.
The weather had been hot and dry for several weeks, and the summer weather continued on race day.
Hooves and wheels stirred up immense clouds of dust on the road. Those walking to the track coughed and choked their way through the haze.
On arrival at the track the spectators lined up at the refreshments stands. Most popular were the ones selling whiskey by the tumbler. The Union Brass Band provided musical selections before and after each race.
The day had turned into a holiday in Guelph. The races attracted people from all strata and classes of society.
From out of town there were seasoned horse racing afficionados. The races also attracted what were then known as dudes: well-dressed and pretentious young men with no obvious occupation, talking in the latest slang. A large number of women attended, from nervous teenagers to elderly dowagers, some with spouses and others alone or in groups. Altogether, the crowd was, in the words of the Mercury reporter, “motley enough.”
The Turf Club was determined to keep a high-tone ambiance to the racing session. Members escorted several obvious professional gamblers off the grounds, and shut down a couple of roulette wheels and the more offensive of several peep shows.
The first race was for the President’s Cup, run in two heats of a mile each, for a purse of $100. Most races at that time were run in two or three heats, but that practice died out in the late 1860s.
Next was the feature race, the Queen’s Plate, for a purse of 50 guineas.
Despite the name, there was no plate awarded, and the prize money, supplied by Queen Victoria, was 50 gold sovereigns, not guineas. It was open to any horse bred in Canada West that had never won previously. Twelve horses lined up for the first heat. Two were from the Guelph area, but they finished far back in the pack. A colt named Edmonton won the heat.
Three of the entries dropped out for the second heat, which was close one. Fastest of the horses was a mare, Brunetta, with a time of 1 minute 53 seconds.
Only four horses lined up for the final heat. Brunetta shot ahead at the start, and maintained the lead to the finish line and winning the Queen’s Plate.
The final race was for the Trotting Purse. It consisted of three five-mile heats, and attracted only three entries. Interestingly, the purse was $400, double that for the Queen’s Plate. The favourite was a horse named Proud Lady, and owned by local businessman Alex McCrae. Another mare, Maggie Clarke, far outdistanced McCrae’s horse to win the prize.
The crowds lingered on the grounds long after the races concluded, but thinned as out-of-towners left to catch their trains back home. For most it had been a pleasant summer holiday. At that time the Dominion Day holiday was several years in the future. There were few who did not appreciate a holiday during the fine July weather.
As might be expected, attendance was down for the second day of racing, but the crowd was still substantial, and all the hotel rooms in town were taken for that night. Races that day included the Guelph Turf Club Purse, worth $200.
There were four entries in the race, which consisted of two one-mile heats. Interestingly, betting on the second day seemed more intense than on the previous day.
There were two other races, each consisting of three heats, as was the norm in those days. The first was the Provincial Purse, for $100, for trotters. Several of the drivers were unable to restrain their horses from breaking into a gallop, which resulted in their disqualification.
Closing out the day was the County Purse, which attracted much interest, because the horses had be raised within Wellington County. There were four entries, two of which were owned by prominent businessmen, Alex McCrae and George Sleeman. The prize, though, went to a horse named Stranger, owned by a man named Irving.
Sleeman’s horse, Pete, had led for most of the first heat, but then could not resist galloping on three occasions as he neared the finish line. That meant the end of the day for Pete and for George Sleeman.
Crowds were much thinner on the third day.
There were few who could afford to take a third day off work that week. As well, the novelty of the races had, by then, worn off for all but the most devoted of racing fans.
Some of the horsemen remained in Guelph for another day or two, socializing with local horsemen and attending social functions hosted by George Sleeman, easily the most gregarious of Guelph’s racing set.
Members of the Guelph Turf Club were well pleased with the success of their turn hosting the Queen’s Plate.
Though it was only the fifth time the race had been run, the Queen’s Plate already had the status of the most prestigious horse race in Canada. The race had elevated the status of Guelph, which then had a population of perhaps 3,000, in the competition for prominence among Canada’s smaller centres.