If horse racing were going to flourish in Winnipeg it was clear that River Park would not be the answer. A new track had to be built.
The idea for Whittier Park was hatched in 1923 by R. James Speers, construction began the same year, and the new track was completed in early in 1924. Racing for the 1924 season would be held at River Park and Whittier Park.
“Grandfather” Whittier Park was built on the banks of the Red River in St. Boniface and was named after American poet John Greenleaf Whittier, who penned The Red River Voyageur, one of Speers’ favourite poems.
Whittier Park was a 4-furlong oval that was extended to five furlongs in 1928. The track occupied the entire expanse of present day Whittier Park, home of Fort Gibraltar in St. Boniface.
On June 24, 1924 Whittier Park held its inaugural card under the direction of the Manitoba Jockey Club. Winnipeg Free Press headlines described Whittier Park as “palatial,” a term that you never hear any more. The elegant clubhouse was painted white as were the cottage barns, which were roofed in bright green. The grandstand roof was also emblazoned with Whittier Park’s name in white.
King George VI and his wife Queen Elizabeth were given a gala farewell in 1939 following their royal visit to Winnipeg. On June 4, 1939 Whittier Park played host to a huge “Farewell – Your Majesties” party – 18,000 people filled the infield, grandstand and clubhouse as the royal train travelled along the high embankment adjacent to the track.
An interesting highlight from Whittier Park was the record-setting Daily Double payoff on June 9, 1942! Only one combination was sold on the winning ticket of 10 (Pagan Royal) and 4 (Mesmerist) and it took the entire pool of $4,835.55, which is believed to be a Canadian record. Using an annual inflation rate of 3.9%, that record Daily Double payoff would have been worth $70,403.11 in today’s dollars! Imagine the expression on the face of the bettor who cashed that ticket!
During World War II gas and rubber rationing resulted in restricted transportation access to Whittier Park. These challenges posed significant obstacles in 1943 and resulted in the Manitoba Jockey Club obtaining permission from the Province of Manitoba to join forces with the Winnipeg Jockey Club, to put on a combined meet at Polo Park race track.
In 1950 raging flood waters irreparably damaged Whittier Park. For a time, the Manitoba Jockey Club maintained Whittier Park as a training track, but by May 1957 horses were no longer stabled there. In the spring of 1958 the clay and river silt topping from the Whittier Park track was hauled to the “new” Assiniboia Downs, where it was mixed with sand to become the racing surface that would hold the Downs in good standing for many years to come.
There was one individual who had a special relationship with Whittier Park. His name was Andy Robinson. Later in life and long after the last race had run at Whittier Park, Andy Robinson looked after the buildings and grounds.
While many may not have ever heard of Robinson, in his prime he was referred to as the “Dean of Racing” on the prairies. He trained horses all over North America before deciding to call Winnipeg home. As Robinson got on in age, life got tough. On March 26, 1957 Andrew Jackson Robinson died at the age of 88. Andy was as much a part of Whittier Park’s history as any person, horse or thing could be.
Only the Whittier Park tree remains to mark the hallowed grounds of old Whittier Park now. History, racing and romance buffs, even casual horse racing fans, might thoroughly enjoy a trip to Whittier Park this summer.
Find the tree by the baseball diamond. Stand next to it. Close your eyes. Listen carefully. You’ll hear the crowd cheering in the summer sun…
and the thundering hooves of thoroughbreds past.