Manufacturing Magic: The Gold Cup and Saucer

Shadow Place’s victory Saturday in the 58th edition was just another chapter in the magical Maritime event.

by Melissa Keith

The immense popularity of the Gold Cup and Saucer is something of a paradox. The purse for the final is $60,000 (Canadian), and it takes place in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, thus generating wonder among people unfamiliar with the Atlantic provinces’ appreciation of harness racing. Why, even in years when the highlight of Old Home Week doesn’t coincide with the World Driving Championship final, do many of North America’s leading trainers and drivers make a point of showing up?

The 58th running of the Gold Cup and Saucer attracted 14 entries, which were divided into a pair of $12,500 Gold Cup and Saucer “Trials” raced Aug. 12 and 14 at Red Shores Charlottetown. In Trial #1, local driver Marc Campbell sent Ron Burke-trained Always At My Place to the front; briefly relinquished position to Do Over Hanover; then blasted home in 1:51.1, a convincing eight lengths ahead of Shadow Place (Gilles Barrieau) at the wire. Trial #2 saw the 2016 Gold Cup and Saucer champion emerge victorious: Rene Allard-conditioned Ys Lotus powered from fourth to first in a 1:52.4 mile. Driven by Louis Philippe Roy, the track record holder won by a mere neck over runner-up Sports Lightning (Bob McClure).

Last night, many World Trotting Conference delegates and World Driving Championship drivers travelled to Red Shores for the Gold Cup and Saucer, which was reduced to a field of seven after the scratch of Ys Lotus.

The weather was uncooperative, the track condition sloppy, for the 2017 final. “A miserable night,” declared track announcer Vance Cameron before race one, even as race-goers assembled outside the grandstand and the track souvenir booth ran low on Gold Cup and Saucer merchandise.

Red Shores marketing manager Lee Drake estimated that around 15,000 fans attend “on a nice Gold Cup night”, yet even with poor weather, PEI residents and visitors make their way to Red Shores for Old Home Week racing, a tradition since a prototype debuted in 1905. The “Old Home Week and Carnival” was designed to attract former Islanders back to PEI to visit. Harness racing was part of the schedule, along with highland games, yachting in Charlottetown Harbour, theatre, concerts, and special church services. It was not until 1914 that a carnival midway appeared.

Official records show that 15,000 people attended Old Home Week events in 1930. At that time, the track known as Charlottetown Driving Park was owned by a famous driver, Lieutenant-Colonel DA “Dan” MacKinnon. He used creative marketing to increase attendance, at the cost of a $2,218 deficit by 1935. The spending was necessary to counter serious threats to racing, ranging from the Great Depression’s economic effects to commonly-held negative opinions about integrity in the sport. In 1938, the Driving Park became a charter member of the United States Trotting Association, to help clear up the latter concern.

Rumours of impending war could have sealed the fate of harness racing at Charlottetown, but “Colonel Dan” wouldn’t allow it. He brought back Old Home Week in a different form, designed to showcase harness racing, in 1940. Racing had been part of the Exhibition; MacKinnon’s vision was to make it the real focus of the new Old Home Week. The City of Charlottetown almost banned the merger, on the grounds that public safety in wartime could be compromised by a large outdoor gathering. MacKinnon saw it differently, arguing that Old Home Week would be a morale-booster and posed little attractiveness as a bombing target. The City suggested MacKinnon gather a thousand names on a petition if he wanted permission to hold the festival. In what would now be called a viral social media campaign, MacKinnon, the Driving Park’s clerk of the course, Ida Yeo and assistant Hattie Tarbush gathered 4,800 supporters’ signatures in time for the City to approve Old Home Week’s racing-oriented revival in 1940.

A fire in 1945 burned down the old Exhibition Building; another in 1959 gutted the grandstand after the racing season. Thanks to the track owners, a group of local business and community leaders collectively known as the “Twelve Apostles,” a new grandstand was erected in time for Old Home Week 1960. It was just in time for the introduction of what was to become a hugely-popular new tradition, the Gold Cup and Saucer.

The race was devised as an attention-grabbing Invitational pace, to be co-sponsored by the City of Charlottetown, the track and newspaper the Charlottetown Evening Patriot. Driving Park co-owner and race secretary E. Frank “Duck” Acorn introduced the concept to Patriot publisher Bill Hancox, who developed the distinctive, prestigious title for the race by combining the names of England’s Cheltenham Gold Cup steeplechase race and Ontario’s Cup and Saucer Stakes for thoroughbreds.

Hall of Fame driver John Campbell, now retired from driving and representing the Hambletonian Society as its president and CEO, was attending his first Gold Cup and Saucer this year. He remarked that he had long heard about the special character of Old Home Week racing. “Wally Hennessey and [trainer] Scotty Bell always said, ‘You gotta get there, you won’t believe it!’ It’s a shame for the weather to turn out like this, but it’s a testament to the fans of PEI and I’m sure the people will turn out on the apron for the Gold Cup and Saucer.”

And they did, even as the rain came down. They cheered the drivers as each horse paraded under a spotlight for its moment in the post parade. They screamed as Marc Campbell and betting favourite Always At My Place led by open lengths at the :27.1 quarter and the :54.1 half; the volume intensified as Gilles Barrieau and Shadow Place challenged late, catching Campbell’s horse approaching the wire in a 1:53.2 victory by a single length.

It was trainer Robert Kyle Fellows’ 101st lifetime training win, but the win meant so much more for the Ontario-based horseman. “It’s my first Gold Cup and Saucer. Carl, the guy that owns him, is from out east and it’s kind of a big deal. We finally had a horse that’s good enough, and we took him down.”

Co-owner Carl Stafford said he couldn’t explain the reason for the thrill of the Gold Cup and Saucer, yet it was very real. “I have no idea — it seems to be the one everyone wants though! I was just so fortunate — the first time here, and we got it.” Shadow Place enjoyed taking time off from Mohawk racetrack to relax and race in PEI, he observed, indicating another reason for Old Home Week’s popularity with humans and horses alike. “I just got a call from my trainer/co-owner Kyle, and he was interested in coming down, and I was all game for it,” said Stafford. “I’ve always wanted to have one here. [Shadow Place] is heading back to Ontario now, and we’ll see what happens from there.”

While the race means a lot to owners, spectators, trainers, and the local tourism industry, the essence of the Gold Cup and Saucer’s magic might distil down to special reverence for, and by, the drivers.

That’s winning reinsman Gilles Barrieau’s theory, offered under heavy rainfall from the winner’s circle. “It’s quite special — I’ve won three before, but this is a bittersweet one,” he said. “The other three, I was favoured to win, but this one here, I wasn’t really supposed to win, but… It’s just a good feeling to win this race.”

He became emotional describing his still-fresh victory with Shadow Place: “I don’t know if it’s the atmosphere, or just the people cheering you on… I don’t know if that’s all it is, but it’s a big thing. You’re sitting on the track, on a bike, and you’re looking at the crowd, and it’s just unbelievable—they’re yelling your name, and cheering you on, and it’s just a great, great race to be in.”

Post-race, young fan Xavier MacDonald, from Nova Scotia, excitedly posed for a photo with Barrieau, the “Maritime Magic Man” who represented Canada at the 2007 World Driving Championship in New Zealand and Australia. “Oh, as soon as I turn 18, I’m driving!” said MacDonald, standing in the rain beside a mud-encrusted Barrieau. “I want to be a driver and as soon as I turn 18, you’ll see me on the track!”

Magic, manufactured by authenticity, in Gold Cup and Saucer 58.