By Brian Roulston
The Queen’s Plate, Canada’s oldest and most prestigious Grade 1 thoroughbred event for three-year-olds, has become The King’s Plate for the third time in the race’s history and will be run on August 20th, 2023, at Woodbine Park Racetrack in Toronto. The Plate is worth $1 million this year and is North America’s longest continuously run thoroughbred stake race. As we close out this era, let’s look back at the 2 plates held in Hamilton, and some Hamiltonians who played significant roles in recent Queen’s Plate history.
Trois-Rivières held the King’s Plate in 1836 in honour of William IV, who ruled 1830 – 1837. After his death, the race was renamed the Queen’s Plate after Queen Victoria and moved to Toronto the following year. The race has been run on tracks of distances ranging from 1 mile to 2 miles until permanently set as a 1¼ mile event in 1957. It was a roving event for the first several years of its existence. Politicians often advocated for the race to be held in their districts until it settled in Toronto in 1883.
In 1866, in celebration of Queen Victoria’s 47th birthday, Sir Isaac Buchanan, William Hendrie and Thomas Swinyard, a manager of the Great Western Railway, founded the Hamilton Riding & Driving Association to bring the sixth running of the Queen’s Plate to Hamilton. Hamilton lawyer and breeder Robert Russell Waddell owned the western half of Gage Park. He constructed a one-mile oval in 1864 enclosed by a wooden fence and opened the track in 1865 for steeplechases, thoroughbred racing, and harness racing. There were two grandstands: one for the gentlemen and one for the ladies, and a set of wooden bleachers. The main track had a sandy loam surface that was said to be easier on the horses’ hooves. The standardbred track was located inside the main track, and a beautiful meadow of trees and clover filled the infield. The backstretch of the racetrack was parallel to Gage Avenue from Main Street. The pedestrian trail that exists north of Cumberland was once part of the original racetrack, and Lawrence Road did not exist at that time. This established the Ambitious City as a prominent racing destination in the years that followed.
On May 24, 1866, the sun shone brightly, the sky was clear and blue, and a light wind blew in from the harbour. The city’s influential and fashionable began arriving at noon, a full three hours ahead of the big race, on some of the most magnificent carriages drawn by some of the finest horses ever seen in this city. 5,000 people entered Waddell’s racecourse to witness Hamilton’s first ever Queen’s Plate. The atmosphere, comparable to a country fair, quickly devolved into a boisterous affair. In preparation, Waddell had prohibited gambling on the premises to ensure the highest moral standards were upheld. Gamblers turned up anyway and Waddell rode his mare Sunbeam to use a little ‘horse persuasion’ to expel them from the premises. During the scuffle, a nervous thoroughbred struck one of three firemen in the chest severely injuring him. Another brawl broke out in front of the judge’s stand, but Waddell and Sunbeam dispersed them, keeping order.
The race was open to all horses bred and raised in Upper Canada. In those days, thoroughbred races were conducted in heats, with the winner being the first horse to win two of three heats. Unlike today, there were no track announcers, tote boards, saddle pad numbers or even a racing program; instead, a few chalkboards were strategically placed throughout the track with the horses’ names, riders, colours, and post positions written on them. Only two of the riders were dressed in their official colours; the others wore their street clothes, making it difficult to follow the race unless you knew the jockeys personally and what they were wearing that day. Even the three starters, one of whom was William Hendrie, and the three judges had difficulties identifying the horses.
In the first heat, 9 horses went to the post where their trainers held them as there were no starting gates. They were to release their horses when the flag was lowered. This was easier said than done. Three attempts to start the first heat failed. A horse bolted sideways on the first try, and on the third attempt, a horse named Beacon made a false start before the rest of the field lined up and took jockey John Gagen on a flat-out sprint around the course before he could arrest his steed. On the fourth attempt, the flag was lowered, and the horses were off. Although it was expected to be a two-horse race between Eliza and Beacon, Eliza had a terrible start and was ousted from contention for the Queen’s Plate. Beacon handily won the opening heat. Five horses started in the second heat, and Beacon once again dominated the field wire to wire. After failing to win the Queen’s Plate on three previous occasions, Beacon finally won it for his Chatham owner, Peter McKeller.
On Dominion Day, July 2nd, 1874, Hamilton hosted its second Queen’s Plate, one noticeably better planned and executed. The starter that day was William Hendrie’s son John. Like the 1866 plate, the favourite, a 5-year-old brown mare named Emily was expected to easily win the Plate. That year, it would be a 1½ mile event, with seven horses taking the start line. Charlie Boyle was Emily’s trainer, competent and talented whose career spanned from the old days of local horse racing that took place on holidays with seemingly no rules or organization to the current systematized racing that is familiar to us today. At the start, the horses were lined up, with Boyle holding Emily and “Doc” Hannon holding The Swallow. John Hendrie yells “Go!” and drops the flag. Except for Emily, all the horses break well. For unclear reasons, Boyle still has Emily in his grip. “The race is on,” Hendrie shouts, yelling at Boyle to let go. Emily is dead last at the half, but she tracks the field, inching closer and closer around the turn. Emily catches the field heading into the backstretch and slowly gains on the leader, The Swallow. Emily eventually catches up to him, and it becomes a two-horse race down the stretch. The two horses duel to the finish, Emily, is closing fast on the outside. However, The Swallow and Jockey John Hazard make one final surge at the wire, securing Emily’s defeat. T.T. Patteson, Emily’s owner would be forever embittered and never forgave Boyle for losing him ‘his plate’. Hamiltonian Robert Thomson won the race. It would be the last time a Hamilton-owned horse would win Queen Victoria’s 50 guineas before 1899. In 1883 Waddell closed the track as interest in horse racing declined. There was no racing in Hamilton until 1893, when the Hamilton Jockey Club opened.
Since the Plate began in Ontario, Hamilton’s William Hendrie was a prominent figure in horse racing, starting with steeple chasing, then on to thoroughbred racing. He once had 300 horses in his stables (now a large part of the Royal Botanical Gardens). Hendrie’s horses raced across North America, including Mexico’s once-famed Caliente Racecourse.
Joseph E. Seagram, a Waterloo whisky distiller, won the Queen’s Plate 8 years in a row, still the record for the most wins by a single owner. Seagram’s streak was broken when Hendrie won the plate with a horse named Butterscotch.
Daryl Wells, perhaps the best-known Hamiltonian to be associated with the Queen’s Plate is best remembered for his distinct and cultured voice and his call of Northern Dancer’s last to first place rally in the 1964 Queen’s Plate. Northern Dancer won the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Queen’s Plate (his final race due to an injury). Born in Victoria, British Columbia, Wells started his career at CHML and later became the first sports director of CHCH-TV when it debuted in 1954. In 1955, he became the voice of the brand-new Woodbine Racetrack. He passed away in 2003 at the age of 81.
Four Hamilton-born jockeys have won the King’s Plate or Queen’s Plate.
William Henry “Harry” Blaylock – born 1859 in Hamilton and died in Toronto on March 20, 1899 -raced in both of Hamilton’s Queen’s Plates finishing 5th and 4th. In 1893, Blaylock won the Queen’s Plate onboard Martello for owner Joseph E. Seagram.
Chris Rogers – born in Hamilton, October 6, 1924, died October 29, 1976. A natural, Rogers won his first race atop a horse named Bon Marche at Fort Erie in 1941. He won 2,043 races, including the King’s Plate, twice, aboard Epic in 1949 and McGill, in 1950. In 1954, he won the Queen’s Plate riding Collisteo.
Jeff Fell – born June 20, 1956, was the leading rider in Canada from 1975 to 1977. He won the Queen’s Plate aboard Norcliffe in a dramatic fashion. Fell brought home 2,637 winners, and his mounts earned more than $38 million.
Don Seymour – born in Hamilton in 1961 and died June 26th, 2020 in Barrie – began his racing career in Alberta and was the leading rider there before his return to Ontario in the late 1980s. He is widely regarded as one of the best jockeys in Canadian history, having won 2,141 races in his career and earning more than $31 million. He is most remembered for winning the Canadian Triple Crown (the Queen’s Plate, the Prince of Wales Stakes, and the Breeders Stakes). No horse had won the Triple Crown in the 26 years previous to him riding With Approval to victory in 1989. He won the triple crown again the following year aboard Izvestia.