A Night at the Races

It’s Old Home Week here in Charlottetown, considered by many residents to be the most wonderful time of the year. The name is a little misleading, as it’s actually a nine-day event. There is simply too much fun to be had to cram it all into seven days.

Beginning in 1888, the annual event is Charlottetown’s longest standing tradition. At its core, Old Home Week is a celebration of the Island way of life. From agriculture to music, from livestock to harness racing, the event embraces the roots of the Island in the heart of its capital. The final Friday of the event has long been treated as a holiday in Charlottetown, and provincial government workers have bargained to take “Gold Cup and Saucer Parade Day” off in lieu of the August Civic holiday.

OHW PhotoThe Gold Cup and Saucer Race is a relatively new addition to Old Home Week and is in its 54th year.  It is arguably the most anticipated harness racing event in Eastern Canada with the fastest horses and drivers in the region competing in 15 racing programs over nine days. The culmination of the racing programs, and Old Home Week, is Gold Cup night, when the final race is held at midnight in front of packed crowds.

Charlottetown is abuzz during Old Home Week and it’s impossible not to get caught up in the excitement. Reminders of the event spill far beyond the fairgrounds on Kensington Road. The sidewalks are filled with parents holding the hands of face-painted children, whose free hand is likely still clutching a candy apple or cotton candy from the Midway. Trailers filled with livestock are interspersed with the regular traffic flowing through the city streets. All signs seem to be pointing to be in the direction of the Charlottetown Civic Centre and neighbouring Red Shores Racetrack and Casino – the hosts of Old Home Week – so that’s exactly where we went the other night.

OHW Ferris Wheel3The first thing you notice walking up Kensington Road to the main gate is the multicoloured lights of the carnival rides reaching high above the surrounding buildings. The second thing you notice is the smell. Not-so-pleasant odours coming from the barns hit your nostrils at the exact moment as the sweet scents of confectionary treats from the adjacent carnival. The combination is oddly comforting, and reminds me of childhood and Old Home Week simultaneously.

On the way to racetrack, we took a quick stroll through the Midway and made a brief stop at “Colour Game” to test our luck before getting into the serious business of betting on horses. Five dollars in loonies was quickly lost to the fast-talking carnival worker. We hoped it wasn’t a sign of what was to come.

At the racetrack, the first thing you’ll need to purchase is a program. It contains the racing program for the night, the names of the horses and drivers competing in each race and information about their recent races and their odds of winning the upcoming race. If you’re anything like me, you’ll need to find a translator to explain all of this to you in addition to the process of betting. Bets can be straightforward or complex. I don’t have much knowledge of harness racing, so I tend to make a straightforward bet by placing a certain amount of money on the horse I hope will win. I tend to ignore the odds and pick the horse with the coolest name. How can you not bet on a horse named Eww That Small or Flaming Prince?

OHW Day RaceIf you want to increase the amount of your possible winnings you have to make a more complex bet, and this requires you to learn some betting lingo. Exactor and triactor are wagers in which you are picking the exact order of the first two or three finishers. If you “box” your bet, your chosen horses can finish in any of those places and you still win. This increases your odds of winning, but lowers the amount of your possible winnings.

We made a $6 triactor box wager for the first race by picking three horses that had pretty decent odds of winning according to the program. The horses could finish first, second and third in any order because we boxed the bet.

Now, I’m not much of a gambler, but watching the horses come around the bend of the racetrack and seeing the ones you carefully strategized over pulling in front of the pack gives me a surge of excitement that makes me want to bet every last dollar in my wallet. Low and behold, the three horses we chose came in first, second and third place and our eyes were glued to the screen in the middle of the track that would tell us how much money we had won. Or rather, we listened as people with an actual knowledge of harness racing explained to us how the digital screen worked and calculated our winnings for us. Our $6 wager had earned us $39.80 in winnings!

We collected our winnings from the same woman who had taken our wager, and she seemed genuinely happy for us as she handed back the cash before asking, “Would you like to make another bet?”

Did we? We were clearly naturals who would leave the track with far more than we came with.

Except that we lost the next race. And the one after that. And a few more after that. Suddenly it seemed like our ill-fated Colour Game bets were an omen after all.

By the time we left that night, that first bet was the only one that paid off. The thrill of the win was well worth it, though. In fact, I think I’ll be spending a few more nights at the track before the final Gold Cup and Saucer Race. I might just be a gambler after all.

Charlottetown Driving Park