Greenwood Raceway/old Woodbine Racetrack was once located in The Beaches neighbourhood of Toronto. The vast property was bordered by Woodbine Ave to the east, Lake Shore Blvd E to the south, Coxwell Ave to the west, with Eastern Ave and Queen St E to the north.
Woodbine Riding and Driving Park
In the mid-1870s, William Howell and Joseph Pardee purchased 60+ acres of countryside land overlooking Lake Ontario from Joseph Duggan. The two men hired architect David Roberts Jr to design a grandstand and nearby roadhouse for their trotting and running track.
In October 1875, the Woodbine Riding and Driving Park opened. The first meet took place over six days and featured trotting, racing and steeplechases. A local newspaper reported that the new track had soil composed of clay and sand. There was a large attendance for the inaugural event, including many ladies. People lined the track and filled the grandstand.
Within just a few years, public disfavour and financial issues caused Mr Powell and Mr Pardee to return the property back to Mr Duggan.
Ontario Jockey Club
Joseph “The Deacon” Duggan, a retired innkeeper and grocer, owned an estate across from the racetrack where he established a stud of thoroughbred horses.
In 1881, Mr Duggan and other horse enthusiasts started the Ontario Jockey Club to encourage thoroughbred racing and breeding. The club leased the Woodbine property from Mr Duggan until he passed away in 1904, at which point the OJC purchased the track outright.
Over the Years
In the early 1900s, along with filling the grounds and grandstand, fans would arrive at old Woodbine by trolley, which would then surround the race track. People could watch the races without leaving their seats on the trolley.
Old Woodbine also hosted other events like bicycle racing, greyhound racing, polo matches, horse auctions, the Miss Toronto Beauty Pageant and even a wild west show.
In 1913, a new double-deck 8,500-seat grandstand was constructed at the cost of $160,000. In 1928, a second one was added because of the increased crowds.
What was once considered the eastern edge of Toronto, the racetrack gradually began being surrounded by the city. It was only 5.5 km or 3.4 miles from the busy downtown core. The racetrack property, which initially had a southern boundary of Lake Ontario, was later filled in and became the backstretch, extending the property’s size.
Old Woodbine Becomes Greenwood
When present-day Woodbine in Etobicoke opened in 1956, Woodbine Racetrack on Queen St E was renamed “old” Woodbine. Architect Earle C Morgan had recently designed the new Woodbine Racetrack. So in 1957, the Ontario Jockey Club commissioned him once again to design a new grandstand, clubhouse and stables for Old Woodbine.
By the early 1960s, still more seating was needed, and a new section of stand was added at the east end bringing the seating capacity to more than 10,000.
In 1963, the Old Woodbine Racetrack was renamed, Greenwood. Total accommodation was listed at 30,000; there were 6,500 parking spaces and over 1,050 horse stalls. It held both harness racing, and Thoroughbred racing meets.
During its last decades, Greenwood was such a popular place that it created major traffic jams and parking issues for the area’s residents.
The End of an Era
The Ontario Jockey Club, a not-for-profit corporation, needed to reduce their overhead and debt load. Taxes on the prime piece of Toronto real estate was $2.8 million, so in 1993, the Ontario Jockey Club streamlined their operations and closed Greenwood. The site had been home to horseracing for 119 years.
In 1994, a developer purchased the 79-acre Greenwood Raceway/old Woodbine Racetrack property from the Ontario Jockey Club for $35 million. The following year, buildings on the site, including the grandstands, paddocks, etc., were demolished.
The Area Today
The west portion of the former racetrack’s property today is Woodbine Park. It features wetlands, gardens, naturalized meadows and an amphitheatre. The eastern part of the site is residential housing.
Along Queen St E, between Woodbine Ave to just west of Eastern Ave is shopping, Champions Teletheatre Greenwood (OTB) and a cinema.
The streets in the residential area of the former racetrack are named to honour the site’s past. They include Northern Dancer Blvd, Canada’s famous thoroughbred that won the 1964 one and a quarter-mile distance of the Kentucky Derby in precisely 2 minutes.
The other streets are Winners Circle, Sarah Ashbridge Ave and Joseph Duggan Rd.
The Queen’s Plate
A stakes race and originally for all horses bred in Upper Canada, the first Queen’s Plate ran in 1860 at Carlton Racetrack, once located at High Park Ave and Humberside Ave. It was called the Queen’s Plate because it received a royal blessing from Queen Victoria. It was valued at 50 guineas.
Over the next couple of decades, the race was hosted at various southern and southwestern Ontario tracks until it found a permanent home at the old Woodbine Racetrack in 1883.
In 1902, when Edward VII became reigning monarch, the race was renamed the King’s Plate. In 1939, King George VI was the first reigning monarch to attend the race at old Woodbine. In 1952, the race reverted to the Queen’s Plate in honour of Elizabeth II.
Today, the $1 million Queen’s Plate takes place at Woodbine Racetrack in Etobicoke. Three-year-old thoroughbreds run a distance of one mile and one quarter. It’s one of Canada’s most prestigious horse racing events.
Before the Racetrack
Sarah Ashbridge, a widow from Pennsylvania and her children, immigrated to York in 1793. One year later, John Graves Simcoe granted the family Lots 7, 8 and 9 (about 600 acres). It was located east of the Don River, between Ashbridge’s Bay and present-day Danforth Ave. In the 1850s, Sarah Ashbridge’s grandson, Jesse, built the historic Ashbridge Estate, located at 1444 Queen St E (once known as Lot 9). A portion of the old Woodbine/Greenwood was situated on land once owned by the Ashbridge family.
Joseph Duggan later acquired a portion of the Ashbridge property along with additional acreage extending to Woodbine Ave.
Horse Racing Expressions
A few expressions we use in our everyday language come from horse racing. Those phrases include:
“Hands down” means an easy victory: In a race, when a horse was far ahead of others in an easy win, the jockey would loosen their grip on the reins and drop their hands as they approached the finish line.
“Homestretch” means close to being done a job or task: It’s the straight part of the racetrack, after the last turn to the finish line.
“Champing at the bit” or “Chomping at the bit” means being eager and not wanting to wait: When a horse is excited, they chew at the bit in their mouth that is used to direct them.
“Down to the wire” or “Under the wire” means a tense, last-minute: At one time, a wire was strung across the finish line so that if two horses were close to each other towards the end of the race, a winner could be determined.
“Get someone’s goat” means to annoy or irritate someone: A goat was placed in the stall with a thoroughbred the night before a race. It was thought to have a soothing effect on the horse; however, opponents would sometimes steal the goat in an attempt to upset the horse and cause it to lose.
Did You Know?
William Howell, the first operator of the Woodbine Riding and Driving Park, also operated a bar at 88 Yonge St called the Woodbine Saloon.
Old Woodbine was said to be “North America’s only streetcar racetrack.”
The world’s first radio broadcast of a horse race aired from old Woodbine in 1925. The announcers were William Hewitt and his son Foster Hewitt, who became one of the most recognizable voices in Canadian sports history.
In 1975, Greenwood/old Woodbine celebrated its 100th anniversary, and many fans came dressed as they would have back when the track first opened. During the festivities, a plaque was unveilled declaring the racetrack a historical landmark.
The Queen’s Plate is actually a gold cup and about one foot high.
The height of a horse is measured in “hands,” which is a measuring unit of 10 cm or 4 in. A horse is measured from the ground to the highest point of the withers (the top of the shoulder where the neck meets the body).
Where Dufferin Mall stands today (on Dufferin St on the west side, just south of Bloor St W) was once the site of Dufferin Park Racetrack.
Greenwood Raceway/Old Woodbine Racetrack Photos
The Globe Newspaper Archives: Oct 20, 1875, pg 4
The Globe Newspaper Archives: Oct 26, 1875, pg 4
The Globe Newspaper Archives: Aug 24, 1885, pg 6
The Globe Newspaper Archives: May 10, 1904, pg 10
The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Jun 12, 1956, pg 27
The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Nov 22, 1958, pg 27
The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Nov 21, 1958, pg 22
The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Mar 25, 1971, pg 44
The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Mar 21, 1973, pg 34
Toronto Star Newspaper Archives: Aug 20, 1975, pg A1
The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Mar 21, 1983, pg S1
The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: May 7, 1993, pg A1
The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Mar 25, 1994, pg A 14