Visitors to Halifax at this time of year will notice that the Emera Oval on the Halifax Commons is open to ice skaters. This used to be horse/harness racing territory, the closest reminders of which are the Bengal Lancers stable (established in 1936, in a registered heritage building off Bell Road, former home of the Halifax Riding and Driving Club), and the Ponies and Poker OTB down the hill at Casino Nova Scotia.

There’s a neighbourhood to the west of the Commons which was originally named Trotting Park. Duncan Street, Allan Street, Chebucto Road, and Lawrence Street all run parallel to the Commons, on what was once farmland owned by Halifax mayor Charles Cogswell. He returned to England in 1870, subdividing and selling his Halifax farmland. Canadian horse racing has deep roots in this part of the Nova Scotia, although the fact is seldom mentioned in contemporary discussions of the public lands.

Military-sponsored racing under saddle, involving Thoroughbreds, was originally the norm in Halifax. It took place on the Commons. Public tastes shifted towards trotting races due to the utility of the harness horses in everyday life; the Thoroughbred runners were not practical road horses or agricultural work animals. In 1890, a Halifax Driving Club was established, reflecting the growth of harness racing in the provincial capital.

The Halifax Driving Club had its first meeting on January 8, 1890. 16 local horsemen signed up, and at a meeting on January 15, 1891, they developed their own rules. Their guiding principle was the “encouragement and promotion of interest in gentlemen’s driving horses.” A 1896 Halifax Herald article about the Club indicates there were many skeptics who thought it would not survive beyond six months or one race meet, but the doubters were proven wrong.

With John Mullane as president, the Halifax Driving Club tried to improve the image of trotting races by embracing integrity. The Herald reported that “impartial and strict enforcement of the rules governing such races and an honest purpose on the part of the club” reversed the negative impression the sport left in the wake of its more lawless days. “Public interest in trotting races was at a low ebb” and the sport itself “in a decaying condition” in the period leading up to the formation of the HDC. Perceived irregularities in how the races were being conducted were blamed for the sad state of affairs. Interestingly, integrity problems have continued to be a central factor on almost every occasion when North American harness racing has suffered significant decline.

Six years after its formation, the Halifax Driving Club was 64 members strong, and was even a member of the National Trotting Association of America. Starting out with trotters, the HDC also managed to elevate “the neglected ‘side-wheeler’”: “today we have a number of first-class pacers with fast marks in this part of the country” (Halifax Herald, April 2, 1896.) Because members were required to reside in “the city and metropolitan county”, the club had to reject many applicants from other parts of the province.

The Halifax Driving Club conducted races on a track it maintained, distributing $10,000 in purses during its first six years of operations. The races were open to horses and horsemen from outside of Halifax, and participants came from throughout the Maritimes. In 1895, the club introduced its first “stakes for class” races, which were a hit with both horse owners and spectators: “This year [1896] the club intends to renew its efforts in promoting more of these [stakes] races, which are more profitable to owners of animals, and which guarantee a larger field of starters than the ordinary purse races” (Halifax Herald, April 2, 1896.)

Winter didn’t slow down the Halifax Driving Club. On February 26, 1895, it held its first annual sleigh drive, travelling to “Ahern’s, St. Margaret’s Bay Road”, according to a report in the Acadian Recorder. “Splendid attendance—many toasts” marked the occasion.

By 1908, club members had set their sights on establishing a winter training venue in the city. A hearing took place that November, in which the Commons Commissioners weighed the arguments put forward by five members of the Halifax Driving Club. There was a clear need for the “proposed winter commons speedway”, noted horseman “Ex. Ald. Johnson”, representing the club. A Morning Chronicle article paraphrased Johnson’s argument: “a large number of citizens own speedy horses and there is no opportunity of speeding them when the snow is on the ground without violating the law, which they do not desire to do.”

The article gave the exact location of the proposed 1/3-mile winter training strip: “one end […] would be near the corner of Cogswell and North Park Streets and the other near the corner of Robie, Cunard Street. It is situated between the rows of trees at the edge of the Common and runs parallel with North Park.” Frank Power, racing chronicler and Halifax Driving Club member, proposed the starting line be near Cogswell Street, allowing drivers to pull up their horses before reaching Robie Street. The club was prepared to build and maintain the track.

The city solicitor opposed the “speedway” due to liability concerns. Johnson persisted with the club’s request for winter training space on the North Commons: “The ordinance could be altered to relieve the City of any liability for damages. A speedway there would be a novelty at the start and when the citizens once realized that horsemen had the right to speed thereon, they would soon get used to it and enjoy it.” For safety, the horses would “speed” in one direction, using the road to jog back in the opposite direction afterward, and no regular teams of horses would be allowed to use the track—it would be for racehorses only, in the winter only.

The meeting concluded with the recommendation that a committee consisting of City representatives, including the solicitor and engineer, and two Halifax Driving Club members further investigate the winter speedway concept.

It would be wonderful if, at some point in the future, harness horses could return to the Commons for any sort of public exhibition. Not a race or training mile—those facilities are long gone—but perhaps a (retired) racehorse or two, in racing gear with sulky or jog cart, walking the perimeter with driver/s aboard, to meet the people who know nothing of Truro Raceway, or the history underfoot in Halifax. The Halifax Driving Club succeeded in building the sport at a time when it was in local disfavour; reintroducing harness racing to the most populous city in the Maritimes would also seem to start with putting the horses and drivers on urban display, with similar pride and integrity.

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