Story by Sandra Williams-Hervé
TORONTO, ONTARIO — It’s Wednesday night and I’m sitting in the dining area at the Woodbine Racetrack in northwest Toronto. Behind me, a handful of women quietly cheer in spits and spurts as I try to concentrate on the wine menu. Suddenly, those cheers grow from soft applause to louder and more boisterous exclamations of joy and anxiety. It becomes impossible to ignore.
I turn my attention to the track. Ten powerful thoroughbreds race their way toward the winding curve of the track with such speed their manes whip back and dirt pitches from their hooves to the sky. With each gallop the tension begins to soar. Soon, the electricity of the moment spreads across the entire dining room.
No. 7 and No. 2 are racing nose-to-nose, battling for the lead as they approach the finish line. Then in a blink, the race is over. The ladies on top erupted in ecstatic shouts. Their horse clearly had won.
This is my first time at the historic Woodbine Racetrack — any racetrack to be honest. I’ve heard stories about how horse racing was a marquee event in the early part of the 20th century. However, over the years, enthusiasm for the sport waned. Judging by the numbers on this ordinary Wednesday night, I’m starting to believe horse racing is about to have a renaissance. The room is packed with families, couples on dates and co-workers on a team-building mission.
The Golden Era of Horse Racing
The Queen’s Plate (founded in 1860) happened days before and nearly 30,000 people were dressed to impress. Canada’s version of the Kentucky Derby is an annual event where women wear stunning fascinators and cocktail dresses and men clean up real nice in their top hats and dapper suits. Some people are dressed so well they make the royals look like commoners.
The Queen’s Plate is the first leg of the Canadian Triple Crown series, which also includes the Prince of Wales Stakes and the Breeders’ Stakes. At the event in 2014, $9 million was wagered in bets. During my visit, $3 million is the estimated bet wager.
Hedging My Bets at Woodbine
I’m not the gambling type, but I’m willing to put some money down on what I hope will be a winner. Betting on horses is a science. It can be as complicated as calculus or physics. If you’ve seen the movie Moneyball you’ll know exactly what I mean.
Generally, a newcomer should put down a bet on a horse to win, place (finish second) or show (finish third).Then there are exactor bets where you have to pick the first and second horse to win the race. This is greater in difficulty and pays out more money. With a triactor bet you pick the first, second and third horses in the race. Another option is the superfecta, where you need to pick the first, second, third and fourth horses.
I took a toonie and pooled my bet to place a $1 exactor bet with two others. With this bet we had to pick the first and second horses to finish the race. Instinctively, I picked horse No. 10. However, there are better ways to choose a winner.
Going Behind the Scenes at the Racetrack
We walk downstairs to the paddock where the horses are kept before races. Here, without any fanfare the owners and trainers make their way to a short pathway for last-minute prepping before the thoroughbreds head for the gate to start their run for first place and the money that goes with it. Each race carries a “purse,” or dollar amount, for the horses that perform well. In the paddock, the owners and trainers use the final minutes to get their horse saddled, tacked up and equipped with blinkers around their eyes to keep them focused on finishing their run along the track.
As the sun sets, we go outside and enter the walking ring. I take a good look at the horses walking by and examine their muscles, and look into their eyes searching for clues about their temperament. Here, among a circle of impressive willow trees is my last chance to exercise my horse-picking instincts.
The trumpets sound and the announcer calls the horses and jockeys to the post, signally the start of a new race. I cross my fingers and hope my instincts don’t prove me wrong.
MORE ABOUT WOODBINE RACETRACK
Location: 555 Rexdale Boulevard, Toronto, Ontario (see map below)
Telephone: 1-416-675-7223 or 1-888-675-7223 (toll free)
Admission: There is no cost to enter the racetrack and parking on site is also free.