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And they're off!

by Stan Scisloswki

For a few glorious years in the 1930s, Stan was a regular at Windsor’s Devonshire and Kenilworth Racetracks. He might have just been a kid with no money, but that didn’t stop him.

At noon people started making their way down Parent Avenue singly, in twos and
threes and in larger groups. It was a good three-mile hike to the track so any adults willing to walk that far had to have betting blood in their veins.

Canada was in the depths of the Depression and few people had money to scrape together to buy the necessities of life or a car let alone for luxuries like gambling on the ponies, yet many people still scrounged up a buck or two to bet on the nags.

Hope springs eternal in the human breast, so the saying goes, and these folks had hopes of bringing back more than they took with them to the betting windows. Most of course, made the even longer walk back home after the races somewhat lighter in the wallet.

I must have been about eight years old when I was allowed to go to the track with my brother Joe and another boy in the neighbourhood. Of course we didn’t do any betting. Even had we been old enough, we didn’t have any money to bet.

We didn’t go just to watch the horses gallop around the mile track however. We went for the whole gamut of experiences that have been firmly rooted in my memory for over seventy years.

Without a doubt, outside the coming of the circus to town, my war experiences and a certain few events of my adult years, I’d have to say the four years or so every summer and fall when thoroughbred racing meets were held at Devonshire and Kenilworth racetracks were amongst the most exciting periods of my life.

The three of us loved hanging around the stables petting the horses. We came to know the docile ones, the ones whose foreheads you could stroke without fear of being nipped. We’d feed these favourites carrots lifted out of pails stored nearby, to the chagrin of the trainers and grooms. Most of them were amiable fellows and didn’t get all riled up about it, but there were the odd, ornery types who chased us away. Of course this didn’t stop us – we just made sure no one was looking when we treated our favourite nags.

On Saturday afternoons there had to be ten thousand people at the track and at least eighty percent were Americans. From scanning the license plates in the parking lot I saw that they came from practically every state in the Union.

Pari-mutuel betting was not allowed in the States, so the only place for inveterate horse bettors to satisfy their desires was to travel to Canada, either to Toronto’s Thorncliffe Park, Woodbine, Fort Erie, or to Windsor’s Devonshire and Kenilworth Racetracks. The latter two tracks were close neighbours, separated only by the New York Central Railway.

Every year there were two meets, the summer and fall meets, with each track holding races for two weeks. In those days only seven races were on the daily cards. After the fifth race, the gates to the grandstand were thrown wide open and everybody was let in without charge. There were always at least a hundred people hanging around the gate including the three of us. We would work our way through the press of the crowd to reach the concrete apron between the rail and the grandstand.

By the last race we were always pretty hungry, but with no money in our pockets, we resorted to picking up discarded half-eaten hotdogs or hamburgers. Of course we only picked up the ones still on a napkin. We’d break off the end where it had been bitten into and wolf the rest down.

We also picked up discarded betting slips. We must have picked up hundreds every day we went. We stuffed them into all our trouser and shirt pockets, with the overflow carried home in our hands. There my brother Peter would check them against the results marked on programs we picked up.

Winning tickets were few and far between, but when we did find one, it was a cause for celebration, even if the ticket was only worth a few dollars. One lucky day, I came up with a betting slip worth $17.75 – a veritable bonanza worth at least $200 in today’s dollars. This slip certainly helped alleviate some of the money woes our family suffered back then.

I’ll never forget the hawkers outside the grandstand before the races got underway shouting their spiel in that drawn-out, almost musical quality, “Racing Form and Entries, Read All About The Running Horse!” Or the guy who sold programs, shouting in his unique, clipped style, “Programs here, programs!” Again and again and again he’d shout, not changing his delivery one iota.

To add to these enchanting sounds were the sales pitches of the food vendors under the stands, especially the guy selling hot dogs, “Get ‘em red hot, red hot, red hot!” Or the man selling frost bites in a mournful chant, as though he was about to break down crying, “Frost bites. . . .get your frost bites here.”

In 1937 when pari-mutuel betting was passed into law in the States, the Detroit Fair Ground Track was built shortly after and this spelled the end of thoroughbred racing in Windsor. There simply wasn’t enough patronage from the people of Windsor and surrounding district to support racing.

Just before Stan’s time, horse races, band performances and other community events were held at the Driving Park now Jackson Park.

It was a blow for me to know there would be no more racing in town, no more strolling through the barn area, no more tickets to pick up, no more tickets to cash, no more excitement of mingling with the throngs of people that came out to lay their bucks on the line.

But those sounds have stayed with me forever, to help fuel my wonderful memories of those stimulating afternoons that so influenced me as a young lad.

“Get your red hots, red hots, red hots...”


 

 

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