Queen's Plate turns 150

BILL LANKHOF, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:36 AM ET

The Queen's Plate was born out of envy. And, if Queen Victoria had realized the nefarious, decidedly un-Victorian doings she was unleashing back in 1859, she might never have let this horse out of the barn.

But she did.

And the Queen's Plate has survived war, depression, calls to ban the sport, and national calamity to celebrate 150 years this weekend as a window on our society -- displaying a stream of colourful characters, subterfuge, spectacular horsemanship and gamesmanship.

The Plate has a history in which glory and perdition were born as twins and they rarely have been far apart.

"Upper Canada (as Ontario was then known) got the Plate because the Toronto Turf Club started whipping off letters to Buckingham Palace (in 1859) because they were upset Quebec had been given the King's Plate," says Louis Cauz, managing director of the Canadian horse racing hall of fame.

"When Victoria came to the throne ... Halifax actually ran the first Queen's Plate in 1840. The guys (in Upper Canada) said: 'We want one, too."

In its day, Queen Victoria's patronage of a Queen's Plate was regarded as a sign that Canada and Toronto mattered -- as important to the civic ego as the Maple Leafs getting a Stanley Cup or the birth of major league baseball at Exhibition Stadium.

"At the turn of the century, professional baseball was just getting started. There was no pro hockey or football like we know it today," Cauz says. "But, every small town from Picton to Chatham had small tracks and they'd have horse racing on the Queen's birthday or at annual fairs and the Queen's Plate became Canada's greatest social sporting event.

"Newspaper front pages printed what people wore and how they got to the track, who came by carriage or train. It was a chance to show off the latest fashions.

"It was Canada's version of the English Derby at Ascot. People would have grand gatherings afterwards."

Among the petitioners to the Queen in 1859 was Charles Littlefield, who a year later would ride off with the prize of 50 guineas in the first Queen's Plate.

"In the early years you had to win two heats and he got thrown off his horse (named Paris), then got on his brother Nelson's horse, Don Juan, and won the next two races," Cauz says.

Handy how that worked out for Charlie. Amongst railbirds, suspicion ruled.

Two years later, he'd fall off another mount, Shadow.

Considering he was one of North America's top jockeys this seemed, well, convenient. Particularly when he again won the next two heats on a horse named Willie Wonder. After an investigation, the runner-up, Touchstone, was declared the winner.

"There might have been some finangling in the wagering," Cauz says.

It is that game of one-upmanship that continues to this day with issues surrounding illegal drugs, suspicious jockey equipment and trainers with cheatin' hearts.

Methods might have changed. Intent hasn't.

CONFUSION REIGNS

By the end of 1863 "there was so much arguing and fighting, chaos and people cheating, that they moved the Queen's Plate out of Toronto and started bouncing around to places like Guelph, Barrie or London," Cauz says. "They didn't come back to Toronto for good until 1881."

There were charges of jockey's throwing weights out of saddles. Horses and jockeys often didn't wear numbers, names or colours. Confusion reigned in 1876 when all three Toronto newspapers, The Mail, The Daily Leader and The Globe had a different winner the next day.

"I had to go to a history of the Plate written 10 years later to find out who actually won," Cauz says. "There was a lot of shenanigans with horses. There weren't any replays. Sometimes it would take weeks before a winner was declared."

Even in more modern times, pronouncing a winner can be a challenge.

Tom Cosgrove, now director of thoroughbred racing at Woodbine, was a placing judge at the 1989 Queen's Plate when With Approval came charging down the stretch with Most Valiant.

"It's all computerized now. But then it was the old fashioned way with a darkroom and camera at the finish line," recalls Cosgrove. "We were in a little closet on the sixth floor at the finish line. They matched stride for stride the last 70 yards. When they crossed nobody knew who'd won. The electricity from the crowd was palpable. The Queen Mother was there. The CBC guys kept calling and asking: 'Who won?' We kept saying: 'We don't know yet.'

"The cameraman had to develop the picture in the darkroom above us and send the wet photo through a trap door with a clothes peg on a piece of string."

Working the camera that day was Yves Loiselle. "When he dropped the photo to us he said: 'Have fun with this one boys' because even from the wet photo he couldn't tell the winner.

"All I can say is, it's lucky With Approval had a grey nose because it stuck out against the black background of the track. That's how we determined he'd won ... it took about 10 minutes but it felt like forever."

The Queen's Plate is now overshadowed by the NHL and global mega-productions like the World Cup, the World Series and the Super Bowl. Even without the cachet it once held there have been gilded moments.

Cauz saw his first Plate in 1958 when Conn Smythe's Caledon Beau won. He filmed Northern Dancer in 1964 with his personal Brownie Kodak film camera and says: "I got a kick out of Kennedy Road in 1971. He was just a mean bastard. He could run a hole in the wind."

'SPECIAL TO ME'

His personal favourite was 1972 winner Victoria Song.

"I was the only handicapper who stuck with the horse and picked him to win. So he's special to me. He might've won one more race after that but he came up big on that day."

Last year, Roger Attfield tied the record for most wins by a trainer. This weekend he goes for No. 9 with Rapid Release.

There will be fewer fans than there once were. No royals expected.

"There's so much more on the sports calendar than there once was ... and horse racing has a greying population," says Cauz, "but it's still an event people look forward to. Is it as important as 30 years ago? Well, you just have to look at attendance figures. We get 17-18,000 (spectators) and we used to get 30,000. Figure it out yourself."

So it is with horse racing's grand lady: She's a little world weary and the velvet reputation is slightly tattered but at 150 years old she's still a looker.


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