On July 2nd I attended the Queen’s Plate horse race at Woodbine for the first time. While it was my work with Ontario Racing that brought me here, I’d say I’ll be back again. I certainly left wondering why I’ve never been before to this remarkable spectacle of sport, cultural tradition, fashion, gambling and entertainment.
Many people have “been to the track”. The countryside is dotted with small racetracks. Much like watching a minor league baseball game, most racetracks are a place to grab a hot dog and pop, sit at a trackside picnic table, and bet a couple bucks on the fastest horse. It’s fun, and I highly recommend it as a way to spend a Saturday or Sunday.
Plate Day, as it’s known, is different. I’ve seen the big race on TV before, that exciting two-minute race with the million dollar prize. Canada’s equivalent to the Kentucky Derby. Being there in person…well that’s a whole other experience.
I prepared myself by reading some handicapping reports. A thoroughbred named Holy Helena was the favourite, with 3-1 odds. I was looking out for State of Honour, who in May ran strongly in the Derby at Churchhill Downs. Tiz A Slam was trained by a guy who’s won the Plate eight times. Everyone knew this was going to be a good race.
I dressed in my baby blue blazer, lavender shirt and navy slacks, with a purple pocket square. I’m not a follower of fashion, but decided to mimic the style of dressing fancier than I normally do. This always confounded me. How a sport with big, smelly horses running through the mud commands people to dress in their finest threads.
Arriving at Woodbine Racetrack, on its sprawling 500-acre property in Rexdale, it’s obvious the place is a beehive of activity. Thousands of people walking in every direction, waiting in lines, standing around, looking, and betting. Many people wandered around the paddock, getting a good look at the horses and buying drinks in the outdoor “Hats & Horseshoes” party.
Along with many of the other racing association staff and thoroughbred owners, we were seated in the 4th floor dining room. Since big crowds don’t sit well with me, I began to feel glad of this, getting whisked up to this quieter refuge, up the restricted elevator to upper floor lounge with its floor-to-ceiling windows facing the immense oval track. And to be clear, the green turf track at Woodbine is a long mile-and-a-half. You can’t even view the entire course, with the outermost backstretch disappearing from view in the distance.
After watching a few of the early races over lunch at our table, we proceeded to our designated viewing seats behind the Royal Enclosure. These seats are accessed by the second floor, and what a sight to behold. The second floor of Woodbine is a sea of thousands of racing fans, lined up to buy food, place bets and watch races from the countless video screens. Mixed among the instagram-model types, are the jeans and t-shirt crowd, just as interested in the televised races broadcast from Belmont Park as they are in live races right outside.
Things start to really happen after Race Six, when the Lieutenant Governor arrives. Her arrival is announced by a cavalry of horses rode by uniformed officers holding tall, red flags. A brass band sounds. Behind the uniformed cavalry, a horse drawn carriage approaches majestically along the track, carrying its royal passenger. She arrives elegantly, disembarking onto the red carpet that leads to her royal seating box.
After this bit of pageantry, the races start up again. The sun is out now in full force. Each teller’s booth has two-dozen people in line to place a wager. The betting is brisk, and the anticipation increases as Race Ten approaches. This entire weekend is building up to the final 5:36pm showdown between the thirteen fastest horses in Canada.
After Race Nine finishes, the cheering grows to a roar as the Queen’s Plate contenders are paraded out along the track before the big race, down to their starting gate. With just a couple minutes to post-time, it seems impossible that the race will start on time, as the horses are nowhere near ready to be in their gates. But, suddenly they are.
Before you know it, “And off they race!” is announced loudly by the voice from the loud speakers. The race announcer’s voice sounds exactly like you’d expect a race announcer’s voice to sound like, with a fast-paced, Brit-accented, Foster Hewitt-style twang making you think that this guy must have announced races in Kentucky during the 1920’s.
And what a race. State of Honour and Megagray dominated much of the race, but Holy Helena was hot on their tails in 3rd or 4th. The crowd of over 30,000 couldn’t contain themselves as Holy Helena took the lead in the final stretch. She won. Tiz A Slam finished 2nd.
And it’s over. The owner of Holy Helena, who happens to be a billionaire auto-industry tycoon, marches proudly to the Winner’s Circle to greet his horse and jockey, and collect his trophy. He will also receive a sizable cash prize, but somehow this isn’t the most important thing right now. Holy Helena will go down in history as winner of the 158th Queen’s Plate. Sports writers and fans are now contemplating her future victories and legacy. And everyone just saw the most exciting two minutes in sport.
CREDIT FOR TOP PHOTO: WOODBINE ENTERTAINMENT GROUP
Mike Chopowick – July 5, 2017