A History of Old Home Week
By Melissa Keith
Driver Anthony MacDonald says it best in the 2011 racing documentary film Exhibition Week: “This is the biggest race in Eastern Canada, the biggest race east of Montreal, well Toronto now I guess, and it’s very important for people that are from here. Me, I’m from here, so I want to win the Gold Cup, because that’s what Islanders want to do.” His ambitions sum up those of many esteemed trainers, drivers and horse owners both here and “from away” over the race’s 52-year existence. While the Sobeys Gold Cup and Saucer is the obvious highlight of Old Home Week, there’s another objective too: bringing Islanders, harness racing fans and tourists together for lots of live racing, agricultural exhibits, entertainers, carnival rides and the massive parade.
The Gold Cup and Saucer isn’t the first race to generate serious attention in Prince Edward Island, of course. That began back on August 30, 1888, when some 5,000 spectators came to Summerside Raceway for a four-heat match race series between stallions Black Pilot and Hernando. But in October 1888, a two-day agriculture and handicraft exhibition was held in Charlottetown, initially to celebrate PEI’s bountiful farms. Within a few years, the “Exhibition” (as it was then known) opened to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick participants, and began its slow metamorphosis into Old Home Week. Harness racing would cross-pollinate with the Exhibition over the decades, until the two became one.
In 1905, the original version of Old Home Week debuted in Charlottetown, according to Charles Duerden, who wrote Sulkies, Silks, Cups and Saucers: A Retrospective of Charlottetown Driving Park. The “Old Home Week and Carnival” ran July 24 through 31 that year. This celebration was about bringing ex-Islanders back to PEI to visit. Harness racing was but part of a full schedule: highland games, yachting in Charlottetown Harbour, theatre and concert presentations, and special church services. It was not until 1914 that a midway appeared.
As for racing, Duerden recounts “Three races were held (at Charlottetown Driving Park, which opened to the public in 1889): a 2:50 class, a 2:24 Trot and Pace and a 2:35 Trot and Pace,” in addition to a meet-concluding race with drivers who were also all medical doctors! This was the era of heat racing, where horses were expected to race each other multiple times the same day to determine a winner based on overall performance, so the limited number of races offered listed represents much more actual racing.
It should be noted that the early Old Home Week races were distinct from the Exhibition races, which ran annually in the fall. When the Borden-Carleton/Cape Tormentine ferry crossing became active after World War I, the service brought so many visitors in August that a decision was made (in 1928) to move autumn Exhibition events to summer. Attendance was definitely on the rise, with the official Old Home Week website noting that 15,000 people attended Old Home Week events in 1930. The owner of Charlottetown Driving Park from 1930 to 1947 was also president of the Provincial Exhibition Association, Lieutenant-Colonel D. A. “Dan” MacKinnon. A legendary driver who owned numerous racehorses, MacKinnon promoted Old Home Week racing through offering additional on-site entertainment. There were horseback riders demonstrating dressage and show jumping skills in the northwest corner of the Driving Park, where he had a show ring installed in 1934. Vaudeville-style acts were a big part of the spectacle then too—MacKinnon relied on them in the evenings, since night racing wasn’t yet introduced.
A vaudeville stage was located to the west of the judge’s stand at the track, and provided entertainment for crowds between daytime races as well as on alternating evenings with saddle horse acts, in the pre-night racing times. “He went to great lengths to secure the best artists of the day, and acts with names like the Four Queens of the Air, the Gold Dust Twins and the Cisme Sensation graced the stage,” Duerden noted. An archived document from 1942 mentions the “American Eagles” high wire act and even a “bear on a bike” stage at the Charlottetown Driving Park during Old Home Week. Charlie Chamberlain of Don Messer’s Islanders musical fame was another popular performer. But Duerden’s account says there were complaints about vaudeville acts taking away from the racing; they were moved to Kennedy Coliseum in 1961 before falling by the wayside in 1971.
The revival of Old Home Week can largely be credited to Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame inductee MacKinnon, who also owned the Charlottetown Guardian newspaper. He was an innovative thinker who used creative marketing to increase attendance at the Charlottetown races, even when this meant the track accrued a $2218 deficit by 1935. The spending was necessary to counter serious threats to racing, ranging from the Great Depression’s economic effects to commonly-held negative opinions about integrity in the sport, according to Duerden. In 1938, the Driving Park became a charter member of the United States Trotting Association to help clear up the latter concern.
Rumours of impending war could have sealed the fate of harness racing at Charlottetown, but “Colonel Dan” wouldn’t allow it. He brought back Old Home Week in a different form, designed to showcase harness racing, in 1940. Racing had been part of the Exhibition; MacKinnon’s vision was to make it the real focus of the new Old Home Week. The City of Charlottetown almost banned the merger, on the grounds that public safety in wartime could be compromised by a large outdoor gathering. MacKinnon saw it differently, arguing that Old Home Week would be a morale-booster for Islanders and visitors, and posed little attractiveness as a bombing target. The City suggested MacKinnon gather a thousand names on a petition if he wanted permission to hold the festival. In what would now be called a viral social media campaign, MacKinnon, the Charlottetown Driving Park’s clerk of the course, Ida Yeo (later Sudsbury) and Yeo’s assistant Hattie Tarbush gathered 4,800 supporters’ signatures in time for the City to approve Old Home Week’s racing-oriented revival in 1940.
There was no Gold Cup and Saucer until 1960, but local harness racing survived and even introduced improvements in the 1940s. The Driving Park made Canadian history in 1946, when the nation’s first mobile starting gate was introduced during Old Home Week. After earlier trials at Montague’s and Northam’s tracks respectively, photo finish technology and night racing under lights debuted at Old Home Week 1947, raising the confidence of horsepeople and bettors. The sport flourished, as fans were treated to record-breaking trotting and pacing speeds from 1943 through 1945, plus skillful driving by renowned reinsmen like Johnny Conroy and Joe O’Brien. Charlie Ballem, in his account of Island sports history More Than Just a Game, explains that “(t)aken in the context of the war years, harness racing provided a meaningful social/leisure experience to many thousands of Islanders and tourists alike.”
A fire in 1945 burned down the old Exhibition Building and another in 1959 gutted the grandstand after the racing season had concluded. Thanks to the track owners, a group of local business and community leaders collectively known as the “Twelve Apostles,” a new grandstand was erected in time for Old Home Week 1960. It was just in time for the introduction of what was to become a hugely-popular new tradition, the Gold Cup and Saucer.
The race was devised as an attention-grabbing Invitational pace, to be co-sponsored by the City of Charlottetown, the track and another newspaper, the Charlottetown Evening Patriot. Driving Park co-owner and race secretary E. Frank “Duck” Acorn introduced the concept to Patriot publisher Bill Hancox, who developed the distinctive, prestigious title for the race by combining the names of England’s Cheltenham Gold Cup steeplechase race and Ontario’s Cup and Saucer Stakes for thoroughbreds. According to Duerden, the inaugural Gold Cup and Saucer was cobbled together with no time for fanfare, although PEI Lieutenant Governor Walter Hyndman attended to present the cooler and trophy to that year’s winner, Dees Boy, owned by Don MacKenzie of Glace Bay, NS and driven to victory by Lloyd MacAuley. It was raced on Friday, August 19, over two dashes on the same card (races three and seven.) There were six starters. Dees Boy won the race again in 1962.
1961 was the year Old Home Week celebrations really started taking their modern form. The Gold Cup Parade, now Atlantic Canada’s largest annual parade, was introduced, and the Gold Cup and Saucer Girls were part of the excitement. E. Frank “Duck” Acorn and Bill Hancox also devised these aspects of Old Home Week. The first-ever parade featured the PEI Regimental Band and eight convertible cars, each with a young woman sporting a distinctively-feminine version of drivers’ colours. Mayor Walthen Gaudet was so impressed by the event that he approved the expansion of the parade to include 30 floats in 1962. The Gold Cup Parade website explains that “as the parade grew, it became a totally separate organization with the sole purpose of presenting the Gold Cup Parade as one of the premier events of Old Home Week. In 1986, the group incorporated as a not-for-profit company under the name The Charlottetown Parade Committee Inc.”An estimated 50,000 spectators watch the parade along the streets of Charlottetown, while many more enjoy the broadcast on local TV.
There has long been debate about whether the Gold Cup and Saucer should be restricted to Maritime-bred or -owned horses. Such talk occasionally came to a head, such as in 1967, when Florida-owned pacer Dr. Harry C. was actually booed on the track, as his formidable race record allegedly scared away many other entries. He nonetheless captured both the Evening Patriot Inaugural Pace and the Gold Cup and Saucer that year, with James “Roach” MacGregor driving. In Doug Harkness’ August 7, 2008 Atlantic Post Calls editorial, he argued for the Gold Cup and Saucer to exclude horses from outside the region, on the grounds that top pacers from other provinces and states can be readily seen via simulcasting today, and it’s often lesser horses from top circuits who ship in for the big race. “We have often felt that the organizers of the Gold Cup and Saucer should take a look at changing the format of this race,” wrote Harkness, who suggested that the 2008 edition might see greater attendance due to its mainly Maritime-owned entries. Appropriately, Ian Smith’s horse Pownall Bay Matt, with Earl Smith in the sulky, won that edition, which had to be rescheduled due to heavy rain flooding the track for the first time in the race’s history.
Whether Maritime horses dominate the Gold Cup and Saucer or not, Old Home Week continues to dominate the landscape of Maritime harness racing. In its 124th edition last summer, the midway, agricultural exhibits and top-notch racing attracted a record crowd. Times change—a travelling reptile show and 500-pound butter sculpture, not vaudeville performers, helped draw in that 2011 crowd. Acting events co-ordinator Erin Jewell told the CBC that roughly half the people attending Old Home Week were non-Islanders, indicating success as both a PEI homecoming and tourism event. No doubt it has introduced many a newcomer to harness racing. One striking example: a well-received film, Exhibition Week, was produced by Jeremy Larter and Jason Arsenault, two self-admitted “complete outsiders to the sport and industry” who chose to document the racing side of Old Home Week 2011.
The Old Home Week races can be wagered on around the world now, courtesy of online and off-track betting and live video streaming. This enhanced availability debuted in 2007, and paid immediate dividends: the 2006 Gold Cup and Saucer handle ($53,000) more than tripled for the 2007 rendition ($168,000, with $100,000 from simulcast bettors). Another $102,000 made its way through the pari-mutuel windows for the 11 earlier races that night in 2007. Although the financial profit on this initial widespread simulcast was diminished by its expense, subsequent years with increased betting and exposure certainly bode well for continued emphasis on harness racing at Old Home Week. Yet there is more to these races than the dollars wagered and profits returned or tickets discarded. As the unnamed narrator of CBC’s television program 20/20 intoned in a 1963 episode called “Canada’s Kentucky,” “when you get right down to it, harness racing is the heart and soul of Old Home Week. It’s not a matter of betting, it’s simply that the traditional fever is running high through the entire population.” Anyone who’s ever personally experienced the Gold Cup and Saucer race would surely agree.