By Brian Roulston

The Hamilton Jockey Club opened under less-than-ideal conditions on a cold, gloomy, misty day. Admission to the track on Thursday, June 1, 1893, was a dollar, and it would cost you 50 cents to get into the infield. For the next 59 years, the Hamilton Jockey Club would be the centrepiece of horse racing across the city and the province.  The track, spearheaded by John Dickenson, was designed to be one of the best in North America and was initially supposed to be called Hendrie Park after William Hendrie.

The property bounded by Ottawa Street, Kenilworth, Barton, and the C.N. Railway tracks was purchased from John Gage for $205 an acre. The grandstand, which faced southward towards the mountain, was huge by 1890 standards, able to accommodate 1,500 people. By comparison, the grandstand at Flamboro Downs Racetrack & Casino can hold 7,000 racing fans. James Balfour, the creative mind behind the Crystal Palace Grounds, Central Presbyterian Church on Jackson St. West, and the Bell Canada Exchange on Hughson Street, designed the Jockey Club grandstand. 

The Hamilton Jockey Club featured two oval tracks: a one-mile inner dirt track for the runners, trotters and pacers and an outer turf course. The infield was set up for steeplechases, complete with water jumps. In the track’s second season, the Hamilton Golf and Country Club was formed, and a 12-hole golf course was built in the infield. Two years later, the H.G. & C.C. purchased and moved to the land of the Chedoke Golf Course. 

In 1904, the Hamilton Jockey Club’s fans gathered to witness a unique spectacle of another type of racing, auto racing. Barney Oldfield, the Dale Earnhart Jr of the era, came to show off his driving skills. The Hamilton Jockey Club collaborated with the Hamilton Auto Club to bring Oldfield, a famous racing driver and showman of that era, to the city. The week before, Oldfield attempted to break his 5-mile speed record of 50 mph, which he had set the year before at the Canadian National Exhibition. Although he failed in Toronto the week before his Hamilton visit, he succeeded in driving around the HJC track five times in four minutes and fifty-nine seconds, setting a new Canadian automobile speed record of 60 mph. 

Every racetrack has an annual signature stake race to attract a big crowd. The Hamilton Jockey Club was no exception; they held a race that stood out in its grandeur: the Hamilton Derby. This prestigious event was open to 3-year-old thoroughbreds, covering a challenging distance of one ¼ miles or 10 furlongs, the same as the King’s Plate and the Kentucky Derby. The inaugural Hamilton Derby took place on June 4, 1907, marking the beginning of a legendary event in Canadian sports history. The purse was a substantial $1450.00.

The race’s importance grew over the years, but it wasn’t until 1911 that an anti-gambling bill called the Hart-Agnew Legislation all but shut down racing in New York State in 1911 and 1912. With limited opportunities for racing, the Americans headed north to Hamilton. That year, only five starters entered the Hamilton Derby; all were American-owned. The top two finishers of that year’s Kentucky Derby, Meridian and Governor Gray, answered the call to the post. Unfortunately, a long shot named Whist won the Hamilton Derby handily. The following weekend, Meridian got revenge when he won the National Handicap, setting a new track record for a mile and one-eighth on the dirt.

Less than a week later, on the eve of the Civic Holiday in 1911, a fire destroyed the grandstand, the judge’s stand and the Grand Trunk Railway platform immediately behind the grandstand, causing an estimated $15,000 to $20,000 in damages.

Track Superintendent Patrick Maloney, whose home was adjacent to the track, was awakened around 2:30 a.m by his dog barking excessively. He looked out the door and saw that the grandstand was ablaze. He called the fire in and rushed out to try to put it out. The fire brigades from Sanford Ave. and Victoria Ave. responded quickly, but as they pulled up, they knew it was too late to save the grandstand. The fire department worked tirelessly until 6:00 a.m. to save the other buildings. Fire Chief Ten Eyck ordered the hoses to remain hooked up in case of any flare-ups. Track employees who had yet to ship out after the spring meet to Ft. Erie or Windsor volunteered to look after the lines until noon when they were disconnected. The track had just finished extensive renovations to the stands and grounds. All that was left of the grandstand were the steel beams. In an interview with the Hamilton Herald the following day, Chief Eyck believed some squatters, ‘tramps’ as they were called then, may have broken in looking for a place to sleep. A cigarette or pipe might’ve started the blaze. The police investigated, and in the end, the insurance company settled the claim. Temporary bleachers were in place for the fall meet. The following summer, a bigger and better grandstand was built, designed by Stuart T McPhie, the man behind the design of the Hamilton Cotton Mills once located at McNab and Simcoe St.

The Hamilton Jockey Club contributed to the war effort during the Great War of 1917. It held a short meet, and they turned over the food stands to the ladies of the Salvation Army. All the money that was made was donated to them. The track was shut down until six months after WWI, and the Jockey Club moved all the equestrian equipment out of the infield and planted potatoes, which were harvested and sent to the front lines.

In 1918, the Spanish Flu hit Hamilton, overcrowding hospitals. That fall, the clubhouse at the Hamilton Jockey Club was one of several locations throughout the city transformed into a temporary emergency hospital.

Interests in Steeplechasing declined after the First War, and in 1931, the jump and the water jumps were removed. 

Horse racing interests again declined after World War II, and the track fell into disrepair. Businesses and people started complaining about the dust, flies and rats.

In 1952, the City of Hamilton was growing in leaps and bounds, and it needed room to expand; there was congestion in the area.

E.P. Taylor, then president of the Ontario Jockey Club, bought the Hamilton Jockey Club and forever shuttered the wrought iron gates. Horse racing would be absent from the Hamilton landscape until Charles Juravinski, Ray Connell and John Grant opened Flamboro Downs on April 9, 1975. 

The Hamilton Jockey Club stood empty for a couple of years. At first, rumours were that it was supposed to be the site of a significant housing development.

On October 26, 1955, Hamilton’s 52nd mayor, Lloyd D. Jackson, cut the ribbon for the new $18 million Greater Hamilton Shopping Mall. The mall was eventually renamed Centre Mall, which we know today as the Centre on Barton