The Queen’s Plate

31 May 1872

The most famous and prestigious thoroughbred horse race in Canada is the Queen’s Plate, open to Canadian-bred, three-year-old horses. It’s also the oldest continuously-run horse race in North America, dating back to 1860, seven years before first running of the Belmont Stakes, the oldest of the “Triple Crown” races in the United States. Over its illustrious history, many members of the Royal family have attended this storied event from Princess Louise in 1881, to the Queen Mother in 1965, and to Queen Elizabeth in 1959, 1973, 1997 and, most recently, 2010. Horse racing is indeed the “sport of kings!”

Queen's Plate 6-5-1872

Advertisement for the 1872 running of the Queen’s Plate, Ottawa Daily Citizen

The story of the Queen’s Plate begins in 1859 when Sir Casimir Gzowski, the president of the Toronto Turf Club, petitioned the Governor General for an annual horse racing prize to be awarded by Queen Victoria to horses bred and reared in Upper Canada (Ontario). He correctly believed that the cachet of winning a royal prize would encourage the development of horse breeding in Canada. Queen Victoria graciously agreed to the request providing an annual prize of 50 guineas for a race to be called the Queen’s Plate. (A guinea is defunct British gold coin no longer minted by the mid nineteenth century but widely used as a unit of account in horse racing, the art world, and certain professions well into the twentieth century. It had a value of 21 shillings sterling.)

The Royal Privy Purse continues to provide this annual prize though instead of 50 guineas, it reportedly sends a bank draft for the sterling equivalent except when a member of the Royal Family is present for the race. Then, the winner receives 50 gold sovereigns in a purple bag. The winner also receives 60 per cent of the race purse of $1 million. Confusingly, the “Plate” is a foot-high golden cup on a black base rather than a plate. (The traditional royal prize for a horse race had been a silver plate, hence the name. However, over time the nature of the prize changed but the name stuck.)

The first running of the Queen’s Plate took place at the end of June in 1860 at the Carleton Race Course in Toronto. It was open to all horses reared in Upper Canada which had never won public money. During the early years of the Queen’s Plate, horses competed in three heats rather than a single race as is the case today. The first winner was a five-year old horse by the name of Don Juan, owned by a Mr. White and ridden by Charles Littlefield. Don Juan came in second in the first heat, but won the second and third heats of the competition over a one-mile track with his best time of 1 minute 58 seconds.

Although the next several Queen’s Plates were held at the Carleton Race Course, it subsequently moved around the province depending on the lobbying powers of various racing clubs and politicians before it settled down for good at the Woodbine Race Course in Toronto in 1883. Until 1956, the race was held at the old Woodbine site at the end of Woodbine Street in Toronto close to Lake Ontario. It then moved to the current Woodbine location on Rexdale Boulevard, north of the Pearson Airport in Etobicoke.  During the Queen’s Plate’s journey around Ontario, the race came to Ottawa on two occasions, the first in 1872 and the second in 1880.

The organization that brought the Queen’s Plate to Ottawa in 1872 was the Ottawa Turf Club, founded in 1869 with the patronage of Sir John Young, later known as Lord Lisgar, the Governor General, who was an avid horseman. The President of the Club was Joseph Aumond, Vice-President was Nicholas Sparks, and  Edward Barber was the Secretary.  While the lobbying of Sir John A. Macdonald, the Premier, may have helped the new Ottawa Turf Club win the event, Lord Lisgar was likely the one most responsible for bringing the race to Ottawa. With His Excellency as its patron, the Ottawa Turf Club definitely had the inside track for hosting the event. News that the Queen’s Plate had been conferred on Ottawa was officially relayed to the Ottawa Turf Club in February 1872, with the race planned for late spring. The conditions of the race were: “For horses, geldings or mares, bred, raised, trained and owned, in the Province of Ontario, who have not previously won public money at any race meeting. The whole stake to go to the winner.”

The Club organized a two-day racing extravaganza for Friday and Saturday, the 31th of May and the 1st of June, 1872. The event was held at the new Mutchmor Driving Park which had opened the previous year. The race track and the adjoining Turf Hotel were owned by Ralph Muchmor and Edward Barber, the Turf Club’s Secretary. Total prize money for the two-day event amounted to $2,850—a fair sum in those days.

Long before race time, pedestrians and carriages packed Bank Street, all heading for the race track located now where the Mutchmor Public School is today. Race conditions were perfect with the track having just been rolled after a recent rain. The main attraction of the day was, of course, the Queen’s Plate, the third race of the afternoon. By the time Lord and Lady Lisgar arrived at 3 pm, every vantage point was taken up, the stands filled to capacity with ladies and gentlemen, while less fortunate punters made do with fence tops, and the seats of cabs and wagons. According to the Ottawa Daily Citizen, it was difficult to estimate the size of the crowd, but the stands scarcely accommodated a quarter of the numbers. Many of the visitors came from other parts of Canada and even from the United States to witness the Queen’s Plate which was already the highlight of the Canadian racing calendar.

The first race of the day was the $300 Hurdles Race, a two-mile run with eight hurdles 3’ 6” high, which was won by Duffy by three lengths. The second race was the $100 Steward’s Race won by Mohawk who took both heats. Up next was the Queen’s Plate. The prize was 50 guineas ($256), the gift of “Her Most Gracious Majesty.” The winning horse may have received an additional purse but the report relating to this was obscurely written. It read: “T.C.W. Entrance, $10 p.p. to go with the plate.”[1] The Ottawa Turf Club provided $100 to the second-place horse.

Six horses were entered in the 1½ mile race (no heats): Blacksmith, a 4-year old, black horse, with its jockey wearing a black jacket and blue cap; Fearnaught, a bay horse with its jockey in scarlet with a dove colour cap; Alzora, a chestnut mare, whose jockey wore brown and white; Jack Vandall, a bay gelding, its jockey in blue and white; Bay Boston, a 5-year old, bay horse, (colours not identified), and Halton, a 5-year old bay horse whose jockey wore scarlet. Halton was the favourite. Three of the horses in the running, Fearnaught, Alzora and Jack Vandall, had the same sire, Jack the Barber, a celebrated thoroughbred horse originally from Kentucky.

Queen's Plate Canadian Museum of History

The Trophy awarded for winning the Queen’s Plate, Canadian Museum of History.

At post time, there were four false starts. But after they were finally off, it was deemed a “splendid race.” After the first half mile, it became apparent that the race belonged to Fearnaught, with the favourite, Halton, fading. In a time of 2 minutes 54 ½ seconds, Fearnaugh, ridden by Richard Leary and owned by Alexander Simpson, won the 13th running of the Queen’s Plate. Jack Vandall came in second and Halton third. Richard Leary, the winning jockey who was also a resident of Ottawa and the horse’s trainer, was presented with a gold-mounted riding whip by Mr. William Young of the firm Young & Radford, a watchmaker and jewellery manufacturer located at 30 Sparks Street.

Two more races followed the Queen’s Plate to round out the racing for the afternoon. These were the $300 Tally Ho! Stakes and the $150 Memorial Plate.

Betting had been fierce in the lead-up to all the races. But all the favourites came up short that day causing “a monetary twinge among the sporting fraternity,” according to the Ottawa Citizen.

Pelting rain almost caused the postponement of the second day of racing from the Saturday to the following Monday. Racing on a Sunday, the Sabbath, was forbidden. However, as many of the horses were slatted to race in Montreal the following week, the decision was made to go ahead on the principle “run, rain or shine.” Fortunately, at race time the clouds cleared, though attendance suffered. Four more races were held: the $600 Carleton Plate; the $400 Lumbermen’s Purse; the $300 Merchants’ Plate; and, finally, the $150 Consolation Stakes. There was a bit of excitement surrounding the running of the Lumbermen’s Purse. Owing to “a misunderstanding or improper interference,” the race had to be run twice. People almost came to blows before the Club Secretary announced that all pools and bets were off for the race.

The Ottawa Turf Club, the host of the 1872 Queen’s Plate, disappeared from the Ottawa racing news in the decade following its big race weekend but not before becoming mired in controversy. At the end of a racing fixture held in October 1874, the Club held a “deer hunt” as a grande finale to the day’s events. A half-starved deer was released onto the field. It was barely able to run having been cooped up in a small cage, its joints stiffened from lack of use. Instead of taking off into the nearby bush to be hunted by a pack of dogs followed by riders, it stumbled into the crowd. It only took ten seconds for it to be taken down and torn to pieces by the hunting dogs amidst the spectators’ carriages. The Ottawa Daily Citizen thought that this was a case for the S.P.C.A. and “hoped that the people of Ottawa will never be asked to patronize such a “sport” again.”

The Ottawa Racing Association hosted the 21st running of the Queen’s Plate at the end of June 1880. It was the second race of the first day of racing entertainment again held at the Mutchmor track. Five horses were at the post come race time; a sixth, the mare Footstep, had been pulled on a challenge on the grounds of ineligibility since it had not been trained in Ontario. The winner was Bonnie Bird, owned by John Forbes and ridden by Richard Leary, the same jockey who rode to victory in the 1872 Queen’s Plate. Bonnie Bird also ran he following day in the first Dominion Day Derby carrying five pounds extra owing to having been the Queen’s Plate winner. Owing to a very bad send off, Bonnie Bird was virtually out of the race at the start but Richard Leary, the jockey, somehow manage to close the gap with the leaders on the turn but was unable to catch Lord Dufferin who won by a length.

Today, Ottawa horse-racing fans can enjoy standardbred harness racing at the Rideau Carleton Raceway on the Albion Road. But if you want to dress up, wear a fascinator, and otherwise enjoy the excitement of the annual running of the Queen’s Plate, you will need to head to the Woodbine Race Track in Toronto.

Sources:

Anderson-Labarge, 2015. “Canada History Week: Spotlight on Sports (Part 2),” Canadian Museum of History, https://www.historymuseum.ca/blog/canada-history-week-spotlight-on-sports-part-2/.

Buffalo Commercial, 1861, “Great Race at Detroit,” 10 July.

Daily Citizen, 1872. “The Queen’s Plate,” 16 February.

—————–, 1872. “Ottawa Turf Club Races,” 31 May.

—————–, 1872.  “Ottawa Turf Club,” 1 June.

—————–, 1872. “Ottawa Turf Club,” 3 June.

—————–, 1880. “Mutchmor Park,” 2 July 1880.

Dulay, Cindy Pierson, 2018. “2010 Queen’s Plate Royal Visit,” Horse-Races.Net, http://www.horse-races.net/library/qp10-royal.htm.

Rideau Carleton Raceway, 2019. https://rcr.net/.

Smith, Beverley, 2018. “Horse Racing: Queen’s Plate,” Globe and Mail, 17 April.

Wencer, David. 2019. “Toronto’s Horse Racing History,” Heritage Toronto, http://heritagetoronto.org/torontos-horse-racing-history/.

Woodbine, 2019. Queen’s Plate 2019, https://woodbine.com/queensplate/.

Wikipedia, 2019. Queen’s Plate, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Queen%27s_Plate.

[1] If any reader can decipher this cryptic phrase, please let me know.

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Fort Culture

31 May 1969

The National Arts Centre (NAC) was born out of a dream of establishing a performance hall in the nation’s capital. For decades, Ottawa made do with the Capitol Theatre, located at the intersection of Queen and Bank Streets. Although the Capitol was an architecturally impressive building and could seat more than 2,000 people in its cavernous auditorium, it had been designed for cinema and vaudeville shows. Constructed in 1920 for the Loew’s theatre chain of movie palaces, the Capitol lacked the facilities of a modern theatre.

In 1962, G. Hamilton Southam, a member of a wealthy Ottawa family that owned the eponymous Southam publishing empire, which included the Ottawa Citizen in its stable of newspapers, was approached by prominent Ottawa residents to spearhead efforts to turn the dream of a proper theatre in Ottawa into reality. The well-connected Southam, a diplomat in the Department of External Affairs, was ideal for the job. Within a year, the National Capital Arts Alliance, with Southam at its head, had put together a feasibility study, and was ready to approach the government for funding. The price tag for the building was $9 million (equivalent to $70 million in today’s money.) Their timing was perfect. The 1960s were years of plenty in Canada. The federal government, with money in its pockets, was seeking worthy projects to celebrate 1967, Canada’s centennial year. A performing arts centre for Ottawa fitted the bill perfectly. Southam presented the proposal to Prime Minister Lester Pearson in November 1963, and by Christmas the project had received the government’s formal approval.

Southam was appointed the co-ordinator of the project; he later becoming the NAC’s first director general. He immediately set up advisory committees composed of the country’s leading arts professionals to establish the requirements for an arts centre which would not only have a national mandate to promote and development Canadian performing arts and artists, but would also be bilingual, the first in the world. A number of sites were considered for the new performing arts centre. Nepean Point overlooking the Ottawa River, was an early favourite. But Charlotte Whitton, Ottawa’s mayor at the time, dissuaded the group, offering instead a parcel of city-owned land on Elgin Street.

The architectural contract for the Centre was given to ARCOP Associates of Montreal. Polish-born Fred David Lebensold, a founding member of the firm, was assigned the task of designing the complex structure.  Lebensold was a good choice. He had been a professor of architecture at McGill University, and was a member of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada. He had designed the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver, the Confederation Centre of the Arts in Charlottetown, and the Place Des Arts in Montreal. Lebensold’s hexagonal design for the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, which was based on the shape of the building site, was in the Brutalist style. Poured, reinforced concrete covered with precast panels of Laurentian-granite aggregate in a variety of textures were used for both exterior and interior walls. “Brutalism” which comes from the French words, béton bru, meaning raw concrete, was a popular architectural style during the 1950s and 1960s for governmental and institutional buildings. The design attracted considerable controversy not least of which for the decision to turn the back of the building towards Elgin Street, with its front door facing the Rideau Canal. Charlotte Whitton called the Centre “Fort Culture.” The building was to house a salon, three performance halls of different sizes—the opera, theatre, and studio—in addition to workshops, rehearsal rooms, dressing rooms, restaurants, and an underground garage.

The approved plan was much larger than the Arts Alliance’s original proposal that Southam presented to Pearson, with the floor area increasing from 175,000 square feet to 474,000 square feet. Substantial funds, $500,000, were also allocated for sculptures, tapestries, and other art works to decorate the building. The budget was accordingly increased from $9 million to $16 million.

Construction began in late 1964. Excavation for the underground parking lot proved challenging owing to the risk of flooding due to the building’s proximity to the Rideau Canal. Costs quickly blew through the Centre’s $16 million budget, and were in excess of $26 million by the middle of 1965. When the building was finally finished in 1969, two years after Canada’s centennial, costs had reached $46.4 million (in excess of $300 million in today’s dollars). Needless to say, there were screams of outrage in Parliament. At a 1968 hearing into the matter, a senior Public Works official admitted that the government had placed more emphasis on quality than economy. A shortage of construction workers owing to building Expo 67 also contributed to cost pressures. But the millions bought a world-class performance centre which put Ottawa on the cultural map of not only Canada but the world.

National Arts Centre

National Arts Centre, May 2015

The decision was made to separate the official opening of the Centre from its first performance. On Saturday, 31 May, 1969, all of Ottawa was invited to an open house and the opening festivities. Nearly 40,000 people toured the facility, giving the new National Arts Centre generally favourable reviews. At the official ceremonies that afternoon, Prime Minister Trudeau presented Lawrence Freiman, the chairman of the Centre’s board of trustees, with the contract between the federal government and the Centre. Embarrassingly, however, the Centre’s state-of-the art sound system misbehaved. After a series of weird sounds and feedback screeches, the system failed, leaving the official speeches inaudible except to those closest to the dais. More successful were the day’s free jazz, folk, and band concerts, as well as the night’s fireworks, and the four searchlights that plied the dark sky.

Two days later, the curtain finally rose at the Centre for the first time. All of Ottawa’s movers, shakers, and arts glitterati attended a gala event in the Opera House. Sending gossip columnists atwitter, Prime Minister Trudeau, then single, was accompanied by Madeleine Gobeil, who had just been appointed to the Arts Centre’s board. Governor General Roland Michener and his wife sat in the royal box.

The evening’s first attraction was the silken, multi-coloured curtain woven by Micheline Beauchemin. Costing $75,000, the curtain was fabricated in Japan since no loom in Canada was large enough. The curtain rose on a specially commissioned, once-only performance of a ballet called “The Queen.” The music was by composer Louis Applebaum, choreography was by Grant Strate, and costumes were by Jean-Claude Rinfret. Eighteen dancers in white baroque outfits danced in front of a large Canadian coat of arms. After the dance, the backdrop was raised to reveal the provincial coats of arms surrounding a Canadian flag which turned gradually into a Union Jack and a blue and white fleur de lys while the orchestra played O Canada.

The pièce de résistance was the world premiere of Kraanerg, a contemporary ballet commissioned for the Centre’s opening, with music composed by Greek-born Iannis Xanakis, dance choreographed by Roland Petit, and sets by the op-artist Victor Vasarely. According to Sarah Jennings, author of the definitive history of the National Arts Centre, the “avant-garde ballet with the discordant electronic-sounding orchestral music” was “hailed by the critics.” Perhaps. For most of the audience, the ballet was impossible to understand, a view seemingly shared by Xanakis and Petit themselves who said that it could not be taken in either a literal or symbolic way. This didn’t leave a lot of room for comprehension. The dancing was highly acrobatic. The Chicago Tribune’s theatre critic wrote that the “company was put through a series of puerile calisthenics which started with Indian wrestling and stopped with push-ups.”  Claude Gingras of La Presse, called the first act “tiresome,” and the second “the effect produced by taking hallucinogenic drugs.”

A few days later, the first play was performed in the theatre. It was Lysistrata, a comedy by the ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes about women trying to end the Peloponnesian war by withholding sex from their husbands. The play was adapted by Michel Tremblay, and performed by Montreal’s Theâtre du Nouveau Monde, directed by André Brassard. The first English-language play was George Ryga’s The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, about a young Aboriginal girl living in a big Canadian city, directed by David Gardener, and performed by the Vancouver Playhouse. The first production in the Studio was Party Day by Jack Winter, performed by The Toronto Workshop Productions. The play was an odd choice for the government-funded NAC. Set against the backdrop of the Nuremburg rallies in Nazi Germany, Party Day spoke of the dangers of government sponsorship of the arts.

After several successful years, the NAC ran afoul of changing social and economic conditions in Canada. With nationalism rising in Quebec, especially within the artistic community, it became difficult to attract French-language players to Ottawa, deemed an Anglo backwater. Growing regionalism in the rest of the country led to calls for government arts subsidies to be distributed equitably across the country rather than centred in Ottawa at the NAC. Canada’s economic woes also cast a long shadow. Caught between rising inflation and successive budget cuts owing to the federal government’s yawning fiscal deficits, the NAC was forced to drastically scale back its activities though the 1980s and 1990s. First to go was the Centre’s English and French, cross-country, touring theatre. The opera then found itself on management’s little list of things it could do without. Next on the cutting-room floor was the “Le Restaurant,” the NAC’s haute cuisine restaurant, and the NAC’s in-house repertory theatre companies. Even the acclaimed NAC orchestra was threatened with conversion into a community-based organization. As a final indignity, there was talk of privatizing the NAC, and turning the building over to the National Capital Commission for use as a rental hall.

A renaissance began in the late 1990s, under the leadership of Elaine Calder, and then Peter Herrndorf, aided by a strong artistic team, including world renowned Pinchas Zukerman as music director. As the federal fiscal situation improved, government funding stabilized. In 2000, the NAC Foundation was established to raise funds from the private sector, helping to reduce the Centre’s reliance on the government. There was also a renewed emphasis on in-house theatre with the establishment of the NAC English Theatre Acting Company in 2006.

NAC Logos

Old (upper) and New (lower) NAC Logos

In February 2014, the NAC unveiled its “Road to 2019,” which detailed upcoming artistic events and festivals in the lead-up to the Centre 50th anniversary. It also launched a new logo and motto, “Canada is our stage, Le Canada en Scène,” to underscore its national identity. In December 2014, the federal government announced that the NAC would be undergoing a $110 million refurbishment that would reorient the front of the Centre towards the Parliament Hill, the National War Memorial, and Elgin Street rather than the Rideau Canal. No longer would the NAC have its back to the city.

Sources:

Grace, Garry, 2010. “Resident Theatre Companies at the NAC,” ArtsAlive.ca, http://www.artsalive.ca/collections/imaginedspaces/index.php/en/history-and-context/residentcompanies.

Jennings, Sarah, 2009. Art And Politics: The History of the National Arts Centre, Dundurn Press: Toronto.

National Arts Centre, 2014. About the National Arts Centre, http://nac-cna.ca/en/about/brand.

————————-, 2014, Annual Report 2013-2014, http://www4.nac-cna.ca/pdf/corporate/AR_13-14.pdf.

Taylor, John, 1986. Ottawa: An Illustrated History, Toronto: J. Lorimer and Canadian Museum of Civilization.

The Gazette, 1989. “National Arts Centre facing death sentence,” 3 April.

The Globe and Mail, 1968. “$9 million Arts Centre rises to estimated $46.4 million,” 8 November.

————————-, 1968. “Arts Centre bargain at $46.4 million, architect says,” 13 November.

————————-, 1968. “Arts Centre target for PC complaint of ‘squandermania,’” 27 November.

————————, 2014. “Feds unveil $110-million reno job for National Arts Centre,” 10 December.

The Ottawa Citizen, 1969. “Love at first sight—for most of 40,000,” 2 June.

———————-, 1969. “40,000 agog but centre’s debut shaky,” 2 June.

———————-, 1969. “Curtain Up,” 3 June.

———————, 1969, “One gets tired of acrobatics,” 3 June.

———————, 1969. “The critics have their say,” 3 June.

The Windsor Star, 1989. “National Arts Centre Orchestra Saved,” 4 May.

Image: National Arts Centre, 2015, by Nicolle Powell