Here in Kingston at 303 York Street stands the Memorial Centre, which holds a farmer’s market, hockey games, rib festivals, a dog park, and the Kingston Fall Fair. The field that now welcomes rib specialists and midway rides, was originally a place of battle for harness racing athletes.
Harness racing is a variation on horse racing where the horse’s race at a trot. While the horses are racing around the track at a specific gait, they would be pulling a two-wheeled cart called a sulky with a jockey directing the animal.
Driving by the Memorial Centre field, you may miss the race track that was once called the Kingston Fairgrounds. Indeed, 303 York Street was home to some of the most exciting horse racing in eastern Ontario. The circuit that harness racers would compete in would usually be within a day’s drive of their home. From Belleville to Brockville and anywhere in between, they would arrive at the track with a packed lunch, eager to race. The victorious competitors would be home for dinner with a small cash prize in the low hundreds of dollars, and the accolades of victory.
One local racer of the 1940s was a neighbour of my dad and grandparents, Burns McKane. Owner of McKane’s Grocery Store, the red and white local business at the corner of John and Montreal Streets, McKane spent years traveling the circuit. After work at the family business, he would walk across the street to hitch up his horse and sulky and then ride up to the Kingston Fairgrounds to exercise the horse.
On Sundays after 9:30 a.m. mass, my dad’s cousin (at the age of 10) would frequently make the walk over to meet McKane at the Kingston Fairgrounds. To my dad’s cousin, McKane was a great driver. He was a nice man who would let him ride around in the sulky, as McKane practiced his horse.
The prize for winning these harness racing competitions would seem mild by today’s standards. However, in the 1940s and 50s, the cash prize would be a significant amount of money for winning a single race.
At a 1948 race in Picton, McKane competed in the Free For All race with his horse, Oxford Lad. With the glory of victory came a cash prize of $290.
Harness racing was competitive and would often result in accidents. Racers may end up colliding sulky to sulky, or inadvertently or purposely cut off the other racer for a chance to take the lead. Burns McKane had an accident in a race in the early 1950s which would end his competing days.
The nice man who was a great driver and knew how to handle a horse died in 1957. The Kingston Fairgrounds that McKane would race around for years would undergo a radical change.
The wooden grandstand where race enthusiasts would cheer on their favourite racer would be torn down and replaced by the cement structure that stands there today. These new additions were completed with the construction of the Memorial Centre in 1951.
The Crystal Palace which was moved from Palace Road in 1859 and rebuilt in the late 1880’s on the fairgrounds site at the corner of York and Alfred Streets, would disappear too. The International Ice Hockey Hall of Fame Building, which replaced the Crystal Palace would also be torn down in the 2000s. The barns would undergo many changes from the original wooden structures to the cement block buildings of today.
Here in Kingston, at 303 York Street, the track of horse racing legends is still there to walk, but you won’t find much else from the days of racing. This land was a place where local harness racers tested their mettle and laid it all on the line.
Walk the track, stand on the ground that witnessed countless victories and defeat, look up towards the cement grandstands where the original wooden grandstands were, and you might see for a moment what legends like Burns McKane saw.
Bill Gowsell was born and raised in Kingston. With an interest in history, food, wine, and all things Disney, Bill has been writing for the last eight years on a variety of topics. During the summers he can be found at the family cottage north of Kingston, or at the bottom of Lake Ontario… scuba diving.
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