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And they're off: Cranbrook's golden age of horse racing

The first, and only, race meet of the Western Canadian Turf Association took place at the original Moir Park in May, 1908. The combined purse of $2,400 would be well over $40,000 today. - Archives
The first, and only, race meet of the Western Canadian Turf Association took place at the original Moir Park in May, 1908. The combined purse of $2,400 would be well over $40,000 today.
— image credit: Archives

Jim Cameron

The 18th and 19th of May, 1908: two red-letter days in the history of Cranbrook celebrations. The relentless rains of the previous week suddenly stopped, the clouds parted and the sun came out bright and warm. The city streets stood lined in coloured lights, flags flew and banners furled; the entire town done up like a gift.

But the real action wasn't in the city; the real action was up on the hill, the Athletic Grounds. Things were done to a turn up there. Carriages and automobiles filled the grounds surrounding the grandstand, the starter's box, the stables (lately renovated and fifty new stalls added), the refreshment booths, the hydrants with fresh water piped in from afar, the paddock full of splendid horses chomping at the bit, all surrounding one of the finest half-mile race tracks in western Canada. Certainly one of the finest locations: "beautifully situated, overlooking the city with splendid views of the surrounding mountains, prairies and forest," trumpeted the local newspaper, bursting with pride.

Horse racing figured prominently in the early days of Cranbrook. The lower townsite was the scene of horse races even before the railway arrived. It was not uncommon of a Sunday evening to have an open-air church service on one street corner (due to a decided lack of churches) and a horse race on another, both drawing crowds in equal numbers.

In 1899, the St. Eugene Mission road was the location of the first organized races. The road itself served as the race track while the surrounding hills provided a natural grandstand. Dominion Day (July 1) of that year saw horse, bicycle and foot races witnessed by large crowds. The problem was, of course, that it was difficult to witness both the start and the finish of the race.

In the spring of 1900, a Turf & Athletic Association was formed to construct a race track on the most logical site, the mesa-like hill just to the west of the railway tracks overlooking the cemetery, overlooking the town, overlooking pretty much everything. Money was raised by subscription to construct the track, the grandstand and the out-buildings. Twelve hundred people attended the 1900 Dominion Day celebration that year. Special trains came in from Moyie and Fernie to be met by the St. Eugene Mission Brass Band at the station. If ever there was a Golden Age of horse racing in Cranbrook then this was the beginning. The big boys were coming to town and they were bringing their horses with them. Cranbrook was on the map.

It was the local natives who won the day: "The Indians were accorded as fair treatment as ever were their white brethren — something they were unaccustomed to — and the result was that the Indians cleaned up the greater part of the money hung up in the races."

There were other events – baseball, soccer, boxing, bicycle and foot races – but it was the horses that drew the crowd: the trotters and pacers, the bang tails from across the countryside. There was money — thousands of dollars in side bets. It wasn't really gambling, after all, it was the sport of kings and there was plenty of would-be royalty on hand.

In 1907, a group of local investors formed Cranbrook Parks Ltd. and purchased the hill from Valentine Hyde Baker for a sum of $3,000, issuing $5,000 worth of stocks at $25 each. The following year they, along with members from Blairmore, Lethbridge, Claresholm, Calgary, Edmonton, Red Deer, Medicine Hat, Moose Jaw, Weyburn, Regina, Prince Albert, Saskatoon and Vancouver, formed the Western Canadian Turf Association circuit to run from May to September. It opened and closed in Cranbrook and featured horses from across Canada, the North West and as far south as San Francisco and Sacramento.

The crowds were plentiful, the town so crowded that people slept wherever they could make a bed. The grandstands were packed all day long with hundreds more leaning on the rails surrounding the course and during the evening the business district was filled with throngs enjoying a night out at the opera house, the movie theatre, the restaurants and bars.

The summer of 1908 marked the apex of local organized horse racing. Racing continued, mind you; horses from throughout the Kootenays gathered on Dominion Day, Victoria Day, Labour Day or any other day amenable for a race. The hill was taken over by the Agricultural Association in later years although the track remained. In fact, it was all that remained after the big fire of January, 1927, which destroyed the agricultural building, the grandstands and the other outbuildings, leaving the hill devoid of all but a half mile stretch of memory.

Things were rebuilt to some degree on the hill, known by then as Moir Park. Grandstands reappeared and would remain into the 1970s. The track played host to all manner of track and field, horse races, stock car races, circuses, outdoor concerts and other such events. People of the town would spend an afternoon there for no other reason than to look over the city of Cranbrook and say, "Hey, I can see my house from up here."

The horses are gone, the track is gone, for that matter the entire hill is gone. Deeded to the city in the 1940s by George Moir to ensure that citizens of Cranbrook have an ongoing sports and recreational area, it was later flagrantly flattened by the city for the gravel it contained and is now naught but a shameless eyesore. The oft-lauded beauty spot of Cranbrook is no more and will not be again.

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